HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) – Daniel Thompson and his wife had tried just about everything to put a stop to their son Adam’s bad habit.
Throughout the day, Adam — who is non-verbal and diagnosed with severe autism, according to his parents — was using the restroom in inappropriate places at school, on the bus and at home. KXAN is using a pseudonym for him to protect his privacy.
“There are times of the day where it was bad — and there are times of the day where it was really bad,” Thompson said.
Thompson said when he got a call from Hutto ISD’s Special Education Department wanting to try something new, he gave them the green light.
The district wanted to try putting Adam in a jumpsuit (similar to a mechanic’s overalls.) Thompson figured his son would likely resist and the plan would fail — but he told KXAN he was willing for them to try.
He had no idea nearly four years later it would end in a criminal trial.
Police affidavits describe a botched attempt to get Adam in the jumpsuit that prosecutors said amounted to an assault on the student.
Detectives said the Hutto Independent School District Special Education Director Stacie Koerth recommended the jumpsuit to alleviate Adam’s habit — and that Koerth and special education teacher Karen Perez planned to put the jumpsuit on Adam as a “demonstration to the SpEd [special education] teachers for anticipated behaviors from [Adam.]”
But, according to the arrest affidavit, Adam resisted the jumpsuit when Perez and Koerth tried to put it on him in the bathroom connected to one of the special education classrooms.
The affidavit said Adam received “skin abrasions” to his head during the attempt. Koerth and Perez said they were from Adam scratching himself, according to that same affidavit.
At some point, Adam ripped the jumpsuit and ran into a second classroom across the hallway, the affidavit said.
Only part of the incident — when Adam fled into the hallway — was caught on surveillance camera, according to the affidavit. But other teachers were present during parts of the interaction.
The police affidavit describes seeing on video Adam “walking hurriedly from one classroom to the another with several adults trying to hang on to him. One of the adults, Perez, loses a shoe in the process and is seen hanging on to [Adam] with her arm around his neck.”
Another part of the same affidavit said Perez had Adam in a “chokehold” around his neck in the hallway.
‘Failure to report’
The next day another special education teacher wrote an email to the principal of Hutto High School detailing the incident, investigators with Hutto ISD police said in the police affidavit.
The teacher, according to court records, called the incident “inappropriate and excessive” in the email.
Another special education teacher also wrote an email to the principal, according to the affidavit, where she wrote she “missed some things that happened because… (she) was not in the room because (she) did not feel that what was being done was appropriate.”
In a written statement, Koerth said at no time was Adam restrained but that “he was blocked from leaving the restroom” and “at one time his hands were held to keep him from biting himself,” according to the police affidavit.
According to the affidavit for Koerth, the incident was reported to the Hutto ISD Police on Dec. 7, 2018, which was eight days after the incident — though the court record does not clarify who made that report. It was around the same time an independent private nurse for a student in the special education classroom notified Child Protective Services, according to the court record.
Hutto High School Principal Roy Christian told investigators he reported the incident to the Assistant Superintendent for Hutto ISD immediately — and that ‘teachers involved’ filed administrative grievances but did not report the incident to CPS, according to the affidavit.
State law designates teachers and all school employees as mandatory reporters, meaning they are required by law to report suspected abuse to CPS within 48 hours of first suspecting that a child has been or may be abused or neglected.
The incident with Adam happened in November 2018. Nearly two years later, the Williamson County Attorney’s Office filed misdemeanor charges against Koerth and Perez. The Hutto High principal was also charged with failure to report.
Koerth and Perez were charged with assault and unlawful restraint, which is when one person knowingly restricts the movement of another person without consent, interfering with their freedom. The two were also charged with tampering with governmental records because affidavits claim the educators did not report using restraint.
Following the charges, the Hutto ISD Superintendent Dr. Celina Estrada Thomas sent a letter to parents in Nov. 2020. In it, she said the district conducted a thorough investigation into the incident at the time and found the employees used “unorthodox measures” but that neither committed a criminal offense worthy of suspension or termination.
“These three staff members have devoted their careers to serving special education students and all students. They are respected and admired by peers, students, and parents. Their records in education are stellar. While the tactic used by Dr. Koerth and Mrs. Perez was unconventional and regrettable, no actions were taken with ill intent,” said Superintendent Thomas in the letter.
It’s been nearly four years since the original incident. Both teachers are still employed with the district and neither of their roles has changed, according to Hutto ISD Director of Communications Noelle Newton.
‘I didn’t believe it’
At the heart of this case is Daniel Thompson and his son Adam. Thompson said Koerth and Perez had his permission to try the jumpsuit and called him immediately after to tell him it did not work.
Thompson said he was surprised when, years later, he learned the Williamson County Attorney’s Office was pursuing criminal charges against the teachers.
“What’s troubling is, in the report, they said they briefly had him in a chokehold, and I have seen the video of this and it’s not a chokehold,” Thompson said. “It was basically them trying to guide [Adam] back to the room and he ducks under the arm and when you are holding someone with your arm it is going to come up underneath the face briefly — it was all of maybe seconds. That’s not a chokehold.”
The state’s role
Since 2015, The Texas Education Agency investigated more than 100 reports accusing school employees of using unlawful restraint on students with special needs. The state agency had substantiated 18 of those cases, TEA data shows.
The cases range from a Manor ISD teacher who, district records said, was filmed by a student hitting a non-verbal student with autism (that case is still ongoing) to another case where an Austin ISD teacher pleaded guilty to biting a 9-year-old with special needs, according to court records. The teacher, in that case, forfeited her license.
Right now, the TEA’s Special Education Complaints Unit has as many as 10 open investigations related to restraint involving ISDs across the state.
Four years after the incident at Hutto High School, the cases against the Koerth, Perez and Christian are still open with the TEA’s Educator Investigations Unit.
School districts in Texas are required to report to TEA any instances of misconduct within 7 business days, including if an educator resigned or was terminated due to alleged misconduct. Districts are also required to report all restraints.
But it is up to local school districts whether they remove an employee from campus over misconduct or criminal charges.
Colleen Potts, an attorney for the non-profit advocacy group Disability Rights Texas, said unlawful restraints in schools are the most common type of cases their office sees.
“Unfortunately, assault, maltreatment of students with disabilities is something we see — and it’s not isolated to one particular district or one particular part of our state,” Potts said.
“Most of the time, our cases dealing with physical restraint do not end in a prosecution and sometimes we even struggle with getting DFPS to go into schools and do a thorough investigation,” Potts said.
Our investigation into student restraints found parents of students with special needs also have a difficult time getting access to videos showing alleged unlawful restraints or assaults on their own children. Under Hutto ISD rules, Thompson was able to meet with the school principal to view the video.
Texas law allows parents access to student records, including viewing or getting a copy of a video showing their student. But several school district policies block parents from receiving a physical copy of surveillance video. The common logic is protecting the identity of other students who may be seen in the video.
‘They were doing their best‘
Koerth’s case is set to be the first to go to trial in May. Thompson plans to testify in defense of Koerth and Perez.
“I just don’t think these teachers should be prosecuted. They were doing their best for [Adam] and after all those years — I know how challenging it can be,” Thompson said.
“I don’t believe they lost their tempers or anything like that. They were just trying to do what’s best for [Adam] and in my book, that makes them heroes and not criminals.”
KXAN reached out to Williamson Assistant County Attorney Laura Gorman — whose office is prosecuting the case —the Williamson County District attorney, and the defense attorneys for Koerth, Perez and Christian.
The attorneys for Koerth and Perez declined to interview ahead of the trial on May 9 but said in a statement “We would be happy to provide additional information, but we do not want to jeopardize potential jurors seeing the story and being unable to serve on the panel. We would be happy to talk to you after the trial date.”
Gorman declined to comment on the cases while they are pending due to ethical obligations as a prosecutor.
Digital Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Rachel Gale, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Investigative Photographer Chris Nelson, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.