A special violence


Herald Writer

Herald Writer

Jason Springstead stepped off the school bus swinging a tape recorder at the head of the teacher’s aide.

Janice McGrath grabbed the 11-year-old and pointed him toward the school as Jason tried to bite her. He started scratching and clawing at McGrath’s hands as she took him to his special education classroom at Stanwood Elementary.

Once inside Room 30, she put Jason in a "timeout" to calm him down. Then she washed the gouges on top of her hands and rubbed them with antibiotic cream.

It hurt.

Jason was aggressive that entire day. When it came time to go home, just after 3 p.m., Jason came running at McGrath, scratching, grabbing and spitting. As she tried to restrain the boy, he grabbed and gouged her thumb. It bled for almost 15 minutes.

It wasn’t an isolated incident. Jason — who has autistic symptoms and is classified as multihandicapped — was small, but strong and violent. He repeatedly attacked teachers, aides and other students without warning, but Stanwood school officials refused to remove him from his special education classroom.

It was a decision with a painful price.


That’s one estimate of how many times Jason hurt teachers or teacher’s aides during the five years he spent in Stanwood schools.

"He would just get real upset; he would pull your hair, he would claw you," said Jeanette Hendry, a former teacher’s aide. "Sometimes it would take another aide to get him off you."

"He was the most unpredictable child I’ve ever known," said Rhonda Burns, an aide in Jason’s middle school classroom for two years. "One minute he would be sweet and loving; the next minute he would be ripping your hair out."

Jason was 10 when he transferred into the Stanwood School District in 1990. He had the mental abilities of a 3-year-old and couldn’t read or write. He could use a few words, but mostly communicated through hand signs and a picture book.

But he was violent. The 5-foot-tall boy would lunge at people, pinch, butt heads and throw things. If given the chance, he would knot his fingers in someone’s hair and pull out tiny handfuls.

His outbursts could last for more than three hours. Other times, he would go peacefully to a timeout and sit quietly with a coat over his head.

Most times, the injuries were minor: a scratched eye, a welt from a bite, a cut on the forehead from something thrown.

Other times, they weren’t.

Theresa Stenger no longer wears tank tops. Her scars will show if she does.

Stenger was a teacher’s aide in Jason’s class for six months. Although it took two aides to safely handle Jason, Stenger was once told to take the boy by herself to the gym so he could get his school picture taken.

At the top of the stairs outside the gym, Jason started to struggle, and Stenger wrenched her back trying to restrain him.

Since then, she’s seen more than 10 doctors and had four surgeries in an attempt to lessen the stabbing shoulder pain and back spasms.

Along with Victoria Douwes, another aide who hurt her back trying to restrain Jason, Stenger filed a lawsuit against the Stanwood School District.

The school district’s insurance company, Ace USA, settled the case in late September; Stenger will get $325,000, and Douwes, who’s also had surgery to relieve her back pain, will get $130,000.

For Stanwood, the settlement prevented a high-profile trial that would center on the district’s special education program.

It wasn’t the first. In August, a federal court found the district negligent in its supervision of a student with cerebral palsy. The district was ordered to pay the girl and her family $310,000.

Douwes and Stenger declined to be interviewed; Jason and his parents could not be reached for comment. But court records, as well as interviews with those who worked with Jason, depict a district that intentionally put teachers, aides and students in harm’s way for five years. The district decision to put Jason in a special education classroom led to more than 14 employees being hurt, six workers’ compensation claims, and the settlements.

Stanwood officials knew before Jason set foot inside a classroom that he was violent.

He had assaulted teachers at his elementary school in the Bellingham district, and his mother took him out of that district after officials wanted to cut Jason’s schooling to half-days because of his behavior. Jason then attended Mary Purcell Elementary in Sedro-Woolley, where his attacks continued and left scars on school staff.

Jason was handled with rubber gloves at Mary Purcell Elementary: the yellow dishwashing kind, pulled up high under long-sleeved shirts.

His aides took other precautions to protect themselves and students from Jason. Two aides watched over Jason, keeping him away from other children, and used strategically placed desks to make a physical barrier between him and other students.

Early assessments of Jason painted a gloomy forecast for success.

Jason was examined by the University of Washington’s Child Development and Mental Retardation Center in August 1990. "His severe level of behavior problems will be a major stumbling block to any progress," either academically or socially, the assessment stated.

"Jason may need short-term residential placement to assess and effectively modify his severe behavior problems," it added.

But Jason wasn’t put in an institutionalized setting. The best setting for Jason, Stanwood officials decided in 1990, was a special education classroom.

For five years, Stanwood tried to teach Jason. He belonged in a special education classroom, district officials believed, because of state and federal laws that say handicapped students belong in the "least restrictive" educational environment.

Like any student who qualifies for special education, Jason received an education plan outlining academic and social goals. The decision on where to educate any special-needs student is made after the child’s "individualized education program," or IEP, is put together by a team that usually includes the student’s parent, teacher, school psychologist and principal.

The IEP helps determine what school setting is the least restrictive environment for the student. For some, it’s a regular classroom, supplemented with special services or aides. But a group home, or other institutional setting, can also be the least restrictive setting, depending on the student’s individual needs.

"If you think of it first as a location, then you’re missing the point," said Doug Cheney, an assistant professor in the UW special education department.

"It’s not like a medical blood test; it’s not like a speedometer. There’s no clear (measure)," Cheney said. "It’s a team judgment, that’s what it gets down to."

In Stanwood, Jason’s IEP team unanimously agreed that he should stay in a special education class. Staff safety was not a factor in his placement.

So, if Stanwood officials knew Jason was a risk to others, why take the chance and put him in a class?

The district had no choice, said Steve Bodnar, interim superintendent of the Stanwood-Camano School District.

Stanwood is required by federal law to serve kids with disabilities, putting them in the least restrictive setting, Bodnar said, from the medically fragile to those with behavioral handicaps.

But others say school officials are wrong if they think the law forces them to keep dangerous students in the classroom.

Districts have options for dealing with aggressive students, said Pat Steinburg, disabilities coordinator for the Washington Education Association.

"I don’t think that the district really has to go to lengths that are unreasonable," she said. "And they definitely don’t have to sit back and let the behaviors cause other students" and teachers to fear for their safety.

If training and additional resources don’t bring positive results, Steinburg said, then districts should consider other placement scenarios.

Hal Hodgins, the attorney for the two aides who sued the district, has his own theory on why the district kept Jason in the classroom.

"I think it comes down to money," Hodgins said. "To me, it’s pretty obvious. Teacher aides don’t get paid a whole lot."

It was cheaper to hire another handler than to send Jason to an out-of-district program, he said.

According to a 1999 state task force report on students with severe behavioral disabilities, school-based day services cost $19,000 a year per student. Community-based treatment costs $42,000 to $52,000 a year, while placement in a residential treatment facility can run from $108,000 to $153,000 annually.

But money wasn’t the issue, superintendent Bodnar said.

"I think that would be an overstatement, that we took the cheap way out," he said. "We’re not going to sacrifice the educational program of a child, or the safety of the staff, because it’s a less expensive option."

"Is there a risk? Yes," Bodnar said. "Do we do preventative kinds of things in our training? Yes."

Stanwood officials did make an effort to minimize the risk of injury to teachers.

The district hired a consultant to give restraint training. A behavioral expert was also brought in, and she recommended changes to Jason’s program, such as rewarding him with pieces of candy or cereal during lessons.

That might have been good enough in many cases, given it’s relatively rare for teachers and aides to get hurt by special education students.

Few injuries rise to the level where a workers’ compensation claim is made, said Butch Adams, a loss-control specialist with Puget Sound Workers Compensation Trust, an insurance pool that covers 29 school districts in Western Washington.

The trust gets just a few claims a year from teachers of special-needs children, Adams said.

But Hodgins said the measures adopted by Stanwood were largely ineffective.

Jason would sometimes attack before aides could pull on their protective gloves. One aide was actually attacked by the boy while she was filling out an accident report for an earlier assault.

The restraint holds didn’t work well on a small child like Jason. And suggestions like tying back hair did nothing to prevent the type of strain injuries suffered by Stenger, Douwes and other staff.

"Over the years, they kept trying the same things over and over," Hodgins said. "They did not work, and they continued to not work."

Settlement aside, Hodgins is hoping the lawsuit will lead to changes in the placement process for special-needs students.

"It’s my own personal belief that the schools need to use the federal and state law much more than they are to put violent students in safer environments."

Hodgins is currently handling an almost identical case in Pierce County, where a teacher and teacher’s aide were hurt by a special-needs student.

"My sincere hope is that, just as the Pinto gas tank case taught Ford that it is not cheaper to make a more dangerous vehicle in the long run … that it will no longer be seen as cheaper to keep violent students in the regular or special ed classroom setting."

In the years ahead, the aides themselves will be better prepared for the challenges they face with special-needs students.

Although teacher’s aides, or paraeducators, traditionally weren’t trained before they stepped into classrooms, changes to federal law on special education now require that aides have the knowledge and skills necessary to work with disabled students.

There are no state standards for paraeducators. Instead, aides must have training in 14 "core competencies" that cover a wide array of classroom issues.

Roughly 70 of Stanwood’s 140 aides work in special education. And about 30 aides are taking a two-year paraeducator apprenticeship program run by Everett Community College, said Gale Forrest, director of special services.

"I just think this job is becoming a lot more complex than it used to be," said Burns, the classroom aide. "We’re not just coming into the classroom anymore and grading papers, and watching, or just helping play games.

"It’s just not that way anymore. We have to be more prepared for what we’re going into," Burns said.

By November 1995, Jason’s aunt could no longer take care of him and he was put in a group home in Seattle. He began classes at Rainier Beach High School in early December. He lasted less than 10 days in the school’s special education program before he was kicked out in an emergency expulsion procedure because he repeatedly attacked staff and was a threat to other students.

The following September, Jason transferred to Ferndale High School and was placed in a special education classroom. Ferndale officials declined to talk about Jason.

Jason was put in a group home in 1997 because his guardian could no longer care for him.

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