AUSTIN (KXAN) — The week-long trial of a Texas special education director over her involvement in a situation involving a non-verbal student with severe autism ended in a mistrial last week — but it could result in a massive overhaul of the laws designed to protect special education students in the state.
Seated inside the small Williamson County courtroom for the trial of Dr. Stacie Koerth were Hutto ISD educators, parents of students with autism who wanted to learn more about the law — and a handful of disability rights advocates.
One of them was Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas. Disability Rights Texas is a federally-designated legal protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities in Texas.
“Over the years, Disability Rights Texas has been tracking the number of restraints against students with disabilities in Texas and, unfortunately, we have discovered some very disturbing patterns and examples of restraints gone wrong,” Aleman said.
Dr. Koerth, as well as her colleague Karen Perez, are accused of forcing the student with special needs into a Dickie’s jumpsuit to keep him from getting into his pants. It was a problem multiple teachers testified had become a severe health concern for the student, staff and for his classmates.
The incident was only partially captured on hallway cameras outside Hutto High School’s special education classrooms. The three special education classrooms had no cameras installed inside, according to testimony. A school spokesperson said the district has still not installed any cameras inside the classrooms in the more than three years since the incident.
It means critical evidence was missing during the trial of Koerth. For Aleman, it highlighted a major gap in the current law.
“It is our recommendation to the next legislature that what we refer to as the cameras in classrooms law be revised and updated — and among other things, we believe it is imperative that there be the mandatory placement of cameras in those isolated classrooms where students with disabilities are with educators,” Aleman said.
“It will serve the best interest of the educators to protect them to show what actually happened before an incident — and it will protect those students as a deterrent to potentially life-threatening behavior by educators,” Aleman continued.
Along with the mandatory placement of cameras in special education classrooms, Disability Rights will recommend requirements for schools to keep the footage on file for longer periods of time and ease parents’ restrictions in trying to access the recordings from the schools.
State prosecutors and Koerth’s defense team declined to interview until the case is resolved. Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency still has an open investigation into the educator’s actions, including the allegation she failed to document the restraint on government records that go to the state agency every year.
Koerth and her attorneys have maintained she did not restrain the student at any point during the incident.
“I am hopeful that the TEA will take a look at all this information now in the public record — that came forward from testimony — and take a look at whether or not the standards apply to administrators and educators were violated,” Aleman said. “The top administrator in a school district in Texas to not recognize that form should have been filled out in a different manner, I think to us, suggests that there should be some accountability from the State Board of Educator Certification.”
Part of the recommendations Disability Rights Texas plans to make to the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities are revisions to the Do Not Hire registry and an expansion of the definition of restraint under the penal code to include a statute addressing special education settings.
“By and large, special educators are special people who devote themselves to helping people. We respect and honor the work that they do in classrooms, but that being said, if there is a special educator, or for that matter any educator, that crosses a line, it is better that the educator is not in public schools any further,” Aleman said.