HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) – A mistrial has been declared in the assault case against a Texas school district’s special education director. The jury remained deadlocked Monday afternoon after a week of testimony and six hours of deliberation.
The jurors were split with three voting guilty and the other three voting not guilty on the charges against Current Hutto Independent School District Special Education Director Dr. Stacie Koerth. The judge issued an “Allen charge,” giving the jury more instructions on its considerations, after four hours of deliberation. However, no juror wavered on their vote.
The state attorney’s office could prepare to try the case again, reconsider plea offers, or consider out right dismissals. Two other district employees are also charged in this incident.
Koerth – and her district colleague Karen Perez – are accused of forcing a non-verbal 17-year-old student with severe autism into a jumpsuit.
The jumpsuit was meant to prevent the student from getting into his pants – an issue that became a growing concern for teachers and staff.
The incident happened in Nov 2018. Court records said during a visit to Hutto High School, Dr. Koerth and Perez agreed to show teachers how to get the 17-year-old into a blue jumpsuit. The clothing was put on backward to make it harder to get off.
The student’s special education teacher at Hutto High School testified she tried earlier that morning, after Koerth recommended and dropped off the jumpsuit, but said it did not go well.
Four special education employees, including one who still works for the district, and a private nurse testified the student could be heard screaming down the hallways, bit himself and tried to crawl out of the bathroom where Koerth and Perez were trying to get him to put on and stay in the jumpsuit.
“He was yelling, because we were changing his routine,” Koerth said on the stand Friday.
Catch up on trial coverage
- Day 1: Assault trial of Texas special education director begins Monday
- Day 2: No cameras in classrooms at the center of a Texas assault case
- Day 3: Texas teachers say alleged restraint of student with autism was ‘wrong’
- Day 4: Father of Hutto student at center of assault case takes stand
- Day 5: Texas superintendent testifies in assault case involving student with autism
The employees also testified on the third and final attempt to get the student to stay in the jumpsuit, Koerth and Perez instructed the teachers to put duct tape around the outside of the suit, across his chest and waist to keep the student from taking the jumpsuit off. According to testimony from the employees, the students’ arms were held out while the duct tape was applied.
Koerth and Perez said the duct tape was used as more of a belt and was not placed on the skin of the student. Both maintain they did not restrain the student.
While hallway surveillance cameras caught seconds of this incident, there were no cameras in any of the three of the special education classrooms at the time. That means critical evidence that could have shown more does not exist.
According to district spokesperson Noelle Newton, there are still no cameras inside special education classrooms at Hutto High School. Texas law only requires districts to install cameras in special education classrooms when parents request one – and gives the district the right to deny their request.
The father of the student, Daniel Thompson, also testified last week he does not believe Koerth and Perez hurt his son. The state pointed out he has only heard about what happened directly from the educators who are facing charges – and the arrest affidavit.
Along with assault and unlawful restraint, Koerth and Perez are also charged with tampering with a government document. State prosecutors allege the pair did not check the box saying “restraint” on the special education paperwork tied to the incident. Educators are required to document a restraint – whether it is lawful or not – for state record keeping.
Over the last week, state prosecutors repeatedly asked the judge to include the language under the Texas Education Code and in TEA policy that details the requirements for reporting restraint in the charging document that jurors based their ruling on. Those definitions are different from those under the penal code – and would have been the rules under which Koerth and Perez had a duty to report.
But because state prosecutors did not specify the language from the Texas Education code in their original criminal complaint, the judge did not allow that information to be placed on the official charging documents jurors received. Instead, jurors received the definition of restraint in the penal code.
The case against Koerth and Perez has drawn the attention of several disability rights advocacy and policy groups, including Disability Rights Texas and The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, who have had representatives in the courtroom throughout the week.
Attorneys for Koerth also pointed out, during their closing arguments, the potentially chilling effect a guilty verdict could have on Texas teachers interested in special education.
In closing arguments, attorneys for Koerth accused the four special education employees who witnessed parts of the incident in 2018 of having an “ax to grind” with Koerth – who had become director six months earlier – and “placating” the students in their care.
The defense accused the private nurse, who ultimately called child protective services over the incident, of lying about seeing parts of the incident – and pointed out the nearly two-year long delay before Koerth and Perez were criminally charged.
The defense also argued the student’s father gave Perez permission to use the jumpsuit on his son beforehand.
State prosecutors pointed out Koerth and Perez failed to document that call with Thompson and could not recall the date or time the conversation happened. Prosecutors also pointed to a report by Perez in which she wrote the father did not want the jumpsuit, or even a belt, on his son during the school day because he feared it would negatively impact the progress they made on getting him to use the bathroom. Perez noted in the report shown to jurors that Thompson was only comfortable with him using it on the school bus.
Prosecutors also argued Koerth and Perez continued to keep the student in the jumpsuit despite his resistance, cries and self-injurious behavior, indicating he was in distress and not giving consent.
State prosecutors also pointed out other missteps they believe Koerth, Perez – and even top district leaders – made before the incident and in the district-led investigation.
Expert witnesses, including a board-certified behavior analyst with another Texas school district, pointed out that interventions – like the jumpsuit – should be introduced slowly, and other less-restrictive options should be tried first and only after making sure there are no medical issues causing the behavior.
Koerth testified to reading the student’s school records before attempting the jumpsuit, but records presented by state prosecutors showed the school did not request a medical evaluation or create a new behavior intervention plan before trying the jumpsuit on the student.