By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The state Department of Public Instruction found that a Wauwatosa School District teacher’s aide who admitted to police that he hugged and pounded on an autistic student’s chest “did not improperly restrain the student,” according to documents obtained by Wisconsin Reporter.
Susan Giaimo filed a formal complaint with DPI that a teacher’s aide physically restrained her 13-year-old autistic son and used improper language around him. Giaimo also alleges Wauwatosa School District staff did not properly follow the child’s Individualized Education Plan.
“This is exactly the reason why we want this special-needs scholarship,” Giaimo, a vocal proponent for a proposed statewide special needs voucher program, told Wisconsin Reporter.
Giaimo previously told Wisconsin Reporter of her problems with the Wauwatosa School District. She has spoken out in favor of a controversial provision in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal that would allow parents of special-needs students to move their children to other public or private schools. Walker’s plan would allow vouchers for up to 5 percent of special education students in the state.
However, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week reported the special \-needs scholarship concept may be nixed as part of a compromise deal for expanding the school choice program, including private school vouchers, statewide.
Giaimo said she is getting nowhere with the Department of Public Instruction.
“We can’t get anything out of DPI,” she said. “A disability rights advocate said the most we could hope for is a slap on the wrist for the school district.”
DPI spared the Wauwatosa School District the slap.
The agency directed the district to issue a “corrective action plan” for not reporting student progress to Giaimo and to implement the “behavioral intervention plan.”
Actions listed on her son’s behavioral intervention plan for extreme emotional states include school staff directing him to sit down and clasp his hands for 25 seconds or to use a pillow to block him from physical aggression.
In March, though, Giaimo reported to DPI an incident that she claimed took place in January where a teacher’s aide allegedly used the “f” word several times in the classroom, prompting her autistic, non-verbal son to cover his ears, rock back and forth and make noise.
A parent in the classroom at the time told Giaimo and police, and stated in a letter to DPI obtained by Wisconsin Reporter, that the aide wrapped both his arms around Giaimo’s son, clasped his hands tightly around his chest and then began to pound on Giaimo’s son’s chest with his fists, “similar to a Tarzan motion.”
The aide admitted to police he hugged Giaimo’s son and that he “did not pound on his chest to hurt him.” He also told police that he and Giaimo’s son were just playing around and that her son sometimes pounded on his chest, according to the Wauwatosa Police Department incident report, also obtained by Wisconsin Reporter.
Multiple efforts by Wisconsin Reporter to contact the aide were unsuccessful.
The school district fired the aide for swearing in front of children, but didn’t mention the physical restraint, according to a Wauwatosa School District human resources report, obtained by Wisconsin Reporter. The teacher in the classroom resigned soon after the incident.
DPI, too, concluded the aide did not use improper physical restraint.
“District staff did not use the positive behavioral interventions listed in the IEP during that time. However, the method used was not physical restraint,” wrote assistant state superintendent Carolyn Taylor in DPI’s report.
In response to Wisconsin Reporter’s request for comment, DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper sent Wisconsin Reporter links to two DPI webpages, one that outlines complaint procedures and another with past complaint resolutions.
“The DPI decision on this particular case (Giaimo’s) is being redacted for posting to the site,” Gasper wrote in an email.
Giaimo is among dozens of Wisconsin parents who have filed complaints about public school special needs education.
In 2010, 81 complaints were filed with DPI related to special education. In 2011, 54 complaints, and in 2012, 60, according to DPI’s website.
Another 71 cases last year were brought to a separate mediation and dispute resolution process outside DPI, down from about 100 cases each of the previous two years.
According to a Legislative Audit Bureau report, 3,235 special-needs students switched districts through open enrollment in 2011, 9.4 percent of all students who participate in the open-enrollment program.
But school districts don’t have to accept open \-enrollment applicants, a charge that’s also leveled against private voucher schools.
Giaimo said it took five years to get an appropriate curriculum for her son. Even then, she claims the curriculum was only followed for a year before it was abandoned.
After the incident, Giaimo asked that her son be moved to another middle school in the district and, if that was unworkable, to move her son to another classroom without contact with the four staff members present when the alleged restraint occurred.
The district denied both requests.
“The appeals process has not worked for my son, and the only other option is for our family to move to a new district,” Giaimo said. “But we have no guarantee that the new district will be more respectful of my son’s right to an appropriate education in a safe environment. It is for this reason that I support the special-needs scholarship as a way to place my son in a school that will respect his dignity and take his education seriously.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org