AUSTIN (KXAN) — Former teacher and Texas Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, said Texas can do better to protect vulnerable students with special needs and improve the state systems that serve them.

This comes after KXAN investigated cases of students being physically restrained by public school employees and officials, including a case out of Hutto Independent School District. In that case, which happened in 2018, a Special Education director, teacher and a high school principal face misdemeanor charges and accusations of unlawful restraint of a non-verbal student with severe autism.

The case is one of more than 100 cases related to restraining students with special needs that the Texas Education Agency investigated since 2015. State records show there have been dozens more TEA investigations into cases of restraint involving general education students.

Cases include a Manor Independent School District special education teacher who, districts record say, was filmed by a student hitting another student with special needs. That case is ongoing. In another case, a teacher pleaded guilty to assault after detectives said she bit a nine-year-old student with special needs, according to court records. That educator forfeited her teaching license.

Right now, state records show, there are as many as 10 open investigations into restraints of students with special needs involving school districts spanning the state – including Dallas ISD, El Paso ISD and Corpus Christi ISD – and six open cases with the complaints management unit of the Texas Education Agency.

“I think every educator will tell you that there are rare circumstances where restraints are unfortunately necessary to protect a student — and protect others in a classroom. The problem is that right now restraints are being used at disproportionate levels — and they are hurting certain student populations: students of color, our black students, as well as our students with disabilities,” Talarico said.

Restraints that occur on school campuses are required to be reported to the TEA. The KXAN Investigates team requested the total number of restraints, unlawful or not, reported by Texas school districts. The Texas Education Agency has not yet provided the data, but a 2019 federal report pointed out some Texas school districts and schools in other states are likely “under-reporting” those numbers.

Identifying problems, making changes

Rep. Talarico said the education committee wouldn’t be able to take up this topic until January 2023 when the legislature convenes but hopes the committee will be able to do some work before then.

“I am hopeful in the interim — in this break before sessions — we can look at this issue, examine root causes, bring in people directly impacted — not just educators and administrators but parents who have been hurt from unlawful restraints and have a more thoughtful conversation about what measures here at the capitol can be taken to prevent the scenarios from happening in the future and address the entire problem.”

Policies from school districts across Texas show parents are often blocked from obtaining copies of videos showing alleged restraints and assault on their children. According to districts surveyed, parents are oftentimes limited to viewing clips in front of school administrators.

Advocates and parents also said Texas schools need to increase staffing in special education classrooms, not just with teachers, but also with aides and specialists with the training to help verbally de-escalate situations within these classrooms.

Colleen Potts, an attorney with advocacy non-profit Disability Rights Texas, said there are other issues regarding cameras in classrooms. Potts asserted parents are often not educated on the fact that they can request cameras in special needs classrooms. She also said cameras are not well maintained by school districts.

“We’ve seen several cases where, conveniently, on the day an incident was happening, and a child was injured, the cameras weren’t working,” Potts said. “There are definite loopholes in the cameras in the classroom law.”

“No child in our system should be hurt by an educator or by a professional in a school and if that does occur, we have to respond with transparency and accountability, and that starts with the parents themselves,” Talarico said. “They have rights in these situations and those rights have to be honored as a public education system.”