Lawsuit alleges APS abuse of special needs student

A lawsuit filed last month alleges that Albuquerque Public Schools employees physically restrained a nonspeaking special education elementary school student and left her soiled all day, according to court documents.

The child experienced restraint during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years when she was in kindergarten and first grade. During that time, she also needed help going to the bathroom, used pull-ups and was dependent on school staff to change her.

Because she cannot speak, the child “had no ability to come home and report to her parents what had happened at school,” leaving her parents dependent on APS for information about their daughter’s health and safety at school. But according to the lawsuit, the district does not have any policy requiring teachers and staff who work with nonspeaking students to offer daily reports informing parents of events that might affect their child’s well-being.

Gail Stewart, the attorney representing the child’s family, said that the restraint was a result of “people with inadequate training being frustrated.” And she said that kids who experience restraint or seclusion can regress, act out or respond emotionally. The lawsuit alleges that use of physical restraint on a young child “is akin to corporal punishment,” and has “no teaching purpose or value” and is “known to cause trauma.”

“When a parent sees a response and has no narrative from the school about what the child’s been through,” she said, “there’s obviously no way to connect the dots.”

Johanna King, APS spokeswoman, said the district does not comment on lawsuits.

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APS policy is to train its staff who work with students who have disabilities to employ physical restraint “as a response to nonconforming behaviors,” and to withhold notice to parents when restraint is used in a special education classroom, the lawsuit argues.

“These incidents do happen with some frequency; parents are not notified,” Stewart said. “And I think that the citizenry of New Mexico needs to understand that there is no law right now. School personnel are not accountable for this conduct or even for reporting it.”

The family is seeking damages in an amount to be determined at trial. They allege that the school district was negligent and breached its duty to care for the girl.

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