KXAN Austin

State of Texas: Prisoner swap brings Texan home from Russia, but what about Brittney Griner?

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texan Trevor Reed is back on American soil. Now his release is bringing new attention to other Americans still being held in Russia, including basketball star Brittney Griner.

Reed, a former Marine, was swapped in Turkey on Wednesday for Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been serving a 20-year prison sentence in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy case. He arrived at Kelly Field in San Antonio just after 12:30 a.m. Thursday.

Rep. August Pfluger, R-San Angelo, tweeted four pictures of him meeting with Reed. The photos show the 30-year-old Texas native wearing a mask while standing next to the Congressman as well as his family members.

“This is the moment we have all been praying for,” Pfluger tweeted. “WELCOME HOME, Trevor Reed!”

Reed’s parents live in Granbury, Texas, which is in Pfluger’s sprawling Congressional district that extends from west Texas near Odessa to an area southwest of Dallas. In an interview Thursday with KXAN, Pfluger described what it was like to witness this moment, see Reed in person and get a chance to speak with him.

“It was an incredible moment,” Pfluger said. “It was a joyful reunion for his family for Trevor to touch down after 985 days and be on American soil. A lot of work has gone into this. It’s been a bipartisan effort.”

Pfluger said they all wore masks at the reunion with Reed because of concerns about his health after being held for such a prolonged time in Russia. He said that likely contributed to President Joe Biden’s decision to move forward with negotiations for Reed’s release.

“One can imagine just how terrible the conditions are in a Russian gulag, like he was in,” Pfluger said. “We don’t know any specifics, but we’re very concerned about his health, and we want to make sure that’s attended to. The first priority is his wellbeing right now.”

Jonathan Franks, a Reed family spokesperson, said on Twitter Thursday, “Trevor is getting his health needs taken care of. He’s not available for media.”

Russian authorities arrested Reed in 2019 after they said he assaulted a Moscow officer while being driven by police to a police station. He was later sentenced to nine years in prison.

The U.S. government described him as unjustly detained and pressed for his release. His family shared concerns about his declining health, which they said included coughing up blood and a hunger strike.

Two Americans, Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, remain detained in Russia, and many are wondering about what’s being done to secure their releases.

Griner, 31, is an Olympic gold medalist, seven-time all-star basketball player who earns extra money in the WNBA offseason by playing in Russia. She is a Texas native, who played college basketball for the Baylor Lady Bears.

FILE – United States’ Brittney Griner (15) plays during a women’s basketball preliminary round game against Japan at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. Griner went to Russia to earn extra money. But the experience has turned into a prolonged nightmare after she was arrested in February by police who reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She is awaiting trial on charges that could bring a prison term. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Griner was arrested in February as she went through a Russian airport near Moscow. Authorities say cannabis vape cartridges were found in her luggage.

The facts behind Griner’s case and the evidence gathered are still unclear. But the accusations against her carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in a Russian prison.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn told KXAN he spoke on the phone Thursday with America’s ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, who’s responsible for monitoring the conditions under which Whelan and Griner are being detained.

“We’ll continue to advocate, just as we did for Trevor, for the release of these two Americans from this Russian prison,” Cornyn said, “but unfortunately they are just trade bait for Putin. He doesn’t enter into these negotiations out of a sense of justice or compassion. He’s looking for leverage and something to get for what he gives.”

Both Cornyn and Pfluger said they question whether this exchange for Reed’s release will change the nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Russia given that Americans are heavily supporting Ukraine in the invasion happening there.

Lawmakers grill TxDMV over paper license plate fraud

The new head of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles took a bruising during an interim hearing at the Capitol on Tuesday which criticized the agency’s handling of the paper license plate problem and called it a “black eye for the state of Texas.”

“As painful as it may have been to see our agency in the media and receiving those black eyes,” said TxDMV Acting Executive Director Daniel Avitia, “I will say that being in the media was part of the solution; it was the awareness they provided.”

During the interim hearing, House Transportation Chair Terry Canales demanded to know why the agency was slow to respond to out-of-control temporary tag abuse. He asked why there was “inaction,” why it took the media to uncover the problem and why the TxDMV was slow to respond.

In the wake of a series of ongoing KXAN investigations into phony car dealers infiltrating the TxDMV’s system to fraudulently mass-produce temporary license plates, state lawmakers are again tackling the crisis. The issue has ballooned into a $200 million nationwide black market that, according to the Travis County Constable’s office, is “the number one safety issue” facing law enforcement today.

“Thank God the media covered it,” said Canales. “Because it’s rampant.”

Canales wants to know why the agency didn’t immediately implement HB 3927 after it passed last year. The 2021 law gave the TxDMV the tools to instantly cut off car dealers suspected of fraud. Avitia noted the tag issue was a priority for his predecessors — including former executive director Whitney Brewster who resigned in February — “amongst many other priorities.”

Since January, more than 30 car dealers suspected of fraud have been cut off from the TxDMV web dealer system, he said.

“Your response is eloquent but it doesn’t answer my question: Why did it take so long?” Canales asked, again, frustrated. “I’m not here to shoot the messenger. But, at some point, somebody’s got to answer to this committee and the legislature as to why it would take so long, and why the media has to be the ones to uncover it, so that the agency we gave directive to can actually do something?”

“Chairman Canales,” Avitia responded, “it’s a very valid question.”

While Avitia says his agency has made strides recently to crack down on fraud, he acknowledges needs to be done. That includes a vote in June to fingerprint car dealers when they apply for and renew their licenses. He says that would eliminate more than 90% of the problem.

The House Transportation Committee at the start of Tuesday’s interim hearing (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“This is a systemic failure,” said Sgt. Jose Escribano with the Travis County Constable’s Office and one of the leading experts in the state on tag fraud.

Escribano said he’s waited four years for this hearing and the chance to tell lawmakers “the whole scope.” He told the committee that more law enforcement training, task forces, and resources — including fingerprinting and VIN verification — are needed to fight back.

“We are here, make no mistake,” Escribano told lawmakers, “because of the news media.”

“[Because] you guys [KXAN] went ahead and started on this and didn’t let up, which is a good thing, we’re here now” at the Capitol, Escribano said after the hearing ended. “If it wasn’t for that [your reports], I’m telling you right now, we wouldn’t be here.”

In March, House Speaker Dade Phelan’s office told KXAN that this issue “is going to be a priority for Texas House members to take up.”

In recent months, the TxDMV has enacted new measures that law enforcement said helped bring the mass-producing of paper tags to a “screeching halt.” However, authorities say more needs to be done.

TxDMV spokesperson Adam Shaivitz previously told KXAN his agency “looks forward to working with the legislature” on the interim charges.

“We are excited to share the progress already made on temporary tag process improvements,” said Shaivitz back in March, “and to have a robust discussion about additional actions the state can take to further prevent criminals from abusing the system.”

At the hearing, Avitia told the committee his agency has reached out to all 50 states for advice. The agency is considering a “redesign” of the tag system that could include new security features like QR codes, varying colors and stickers. Also on the table, is scrapping the paper material altogether.

Escribano calls that the “nuclear option.”

“Other states have plates and they haven’t had the problems that we have. We are very lax,” he said. “Tying those [loose ends] up or blow the system up. That’s your option.”

Why reports of educators unlawfully restraining students often end up unsubstantiated

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.

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.

At the heart of this case are 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.”

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.

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Hover overTap the green areas to see the status of the investigations. According to the Texas Education Agency, Substantiated means that all allegations in the complaint were found in favor of the complainant.  Unsubstantiated means that all allegations in the complaint were found in favor of the school district/charter school. Partial means that some allegations were found in favor of the complainant and others in favor of the school district/charter. Abeyance means that the issues were put on hold pending local resolution or a due process hearing.  Withdrawn means that the complainant withdrew the complaint without an investigation. Pending means the investigation is not yet completed.

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.

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.


Texas lawmaker eyes school restraint investigations

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.

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.”