AUSTIN (TEXAS) — At the Texas State Capitol Monday, emotional parents tearfully shared stories of their children being physically restrained at school. Among the group – was Tatiana Alfano whose son was seen on surveillance video being thrown by a Round Rock Independent School District administrator last school year.
Standing next to advocates for disability rights – parents recalled struggling to access video showing alleged abuses and barriers to accountability for educators who unlawfully restrain students.
“Restraint is not a one-time act. Repercussions last for a very long time,” Jeanna TenBrink, a parent from the Houston area told lawmakers.
Disability Rights Texas, a federally-designated, legal protection agency for people with disabilities, and other advocacy groups are calling for several measures to be taken this session — including improved independent investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services of alleged abuse in schools.
Advocates are also asking lawmakers to change the definition of abuse under the Texas Family Code to include when school employees use violent restraint or seclusion that is not in compliance with federal and state regulations.
“CPS has a role as an independent watchdog over these cases – and must have clear direction to call an illegal restraint the abuse that it is,” Autism Society Texas Executive Director Jacquie Benestante said.
Already, Rep. Mary Gonzales (D- El Paso) filed a bill that would ban school employees, and volunteers from restraining students on the ground on their belly or back.
Rep. Lacey Hull has also re-filed a bill from the last session that would ban officers from using handcuffs or chemical irritants, like pepper spray, on students younger than 10 in a school setting.
The group has yet to file bills that would address advocates’ requests for surveillance cameras in special education classrooms, additional training for special education teachers, and changing the definition of abuse under the family code.
In recent years, there has been a myriad of cases in Texas involving the restraint of students with special needs. Disability Rights Texas published a report in 2020 finding nine times out of 10, a school restraint is on a student with a disability.
In Hutto, two special education administrators were charged with unlawful restraint and tampering with government records after investigators said they forced a student with severe autism into a jumpsuit, used duct tape to secure it — and improperly reported the incident to the state.
The case ended in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. The two administrators later plead no contest only to the charge they improperly reported the incident as a part of a deal with prosecutors. The other charges were dropped.
Most of the alleged incident occurred in the special education classrooms at Hutto High School and was not caught on surveillance video because there were none installed in the rooms by the district.
A Round Rock ISD administrator is no longer working at a campus for students with special needs after a video appeared to show him grabbing a 14-year-old student and tossing him into a ‘cool-down room’ where the student hit his head on the wall.
The Texas Education Agency is still investigating the educator involved. A letter sent to the student’s mother on June 2022 shows Texas DFPS initially ruled out abuse.
A spokesperson for DFPS said it was unable to comment on the case because it was confidential.