This article was published on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by Silas Allen on July 5, 2021.
A group for people with disabilities is calling for an independent review of the Fort Worth school district’s restraint policies following the death of a student with autism.
Xavier Hernandez, 21, died March 1 at John Peter Smith Hospital. Fort Worth district officials confirmed that Hernandez had been restrained earlier that day at Boulevard Heights, a school for students with disabilities. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office lists Hernandez’s cause and manner of death as pending.
The Self-Determination Group, a North Texas organization for people age 14 and older with disabilities, requested the district bring in an outside investigator to review the district’s current restraint policies and practices and make recommendations for improvement. The group wants to see that review include the number and types of restraints school staff may use, the training provided to staff and how and when parents receive notification of a restraint.
Cindi Paschall, a volunteer assistant with the group, said physical restraints can be dangerous and dehumanizing for disabled students. The group particularly wants to see an end to the use of restraints in which the student is lying either face-down or face-up on the ground, Paschall said. The president of Crisis Prevention Institute, the company the Fort Worth school district uses for restraint training, told the Star-Telegram last month that the institute doesn’t train teachers to take students to the ground during restraints.
Despite that training, such restraints have happened in Fort Worth schools. In May, a bystander recorded video of Boulevard Heights teachers holding fourth-grader Toni Crenshaw to the ground during a restraint. The bystander, Isballa Ellis, told the Star-Telegram that one of the teachers was sitting on the girl. Toni’s mother, Sandra Crosby, said she didn’t learn about the restraint until weeks later, when she received an anonymous text message telling her to look at the video on Facebook.
Paschall said she’d also like to see that review include the district’s policies and practices around de-escalation. It’s important that teachers do all they can to head off situations before they rise to the level where a restraint is necessary, she said.
A representative from the group presented the request at the June meeting of the district’s Board of Trustees. Paschall said the group has received no response from the district. A spokesman for the district didn’t respond to questions related to this story.
The Dallas-based advocacy group Disability Rights Texas is investigating both incidents at Boulevard Heights. The Fort Worth Police Department’s homicide unit is investigating Hernandez’s death, a police spokesman said.
District officials have provided scant details about Hernandez’s death.
In response to a public records request for surveillance video from Boulevard Heights on the day Hernandez died, the district declined to release the footage, citing protections under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But the district allowed the Star-Telegram to review two hours’ worth of footage from a security camera in a hallway at the school.
The footage doesn’t show Hernandez being restrained. In the video, two Fort Worth police officers and several paramedics can be seen arriving at the school, and two teachers can be seen hurrying up a flight of stairs and running down a hallway. About four minutes later, five teachers can be seen walking back through the hallway, visibly shaken.
A MedStar spokesman said Hernandez was in critical condition when paramedics arrived at the school.
BOULEVARD HEIGHTS LEADS FORT WORTH SCHOOLS IN RESTRAINTS
More students at Boulevard Heights were restrained during the past school year than at any other campus in the district, according to figures released by the district in response to a records request by the Star-Telegram.
During the 2020-21 school year, 18 Boulevard Heights students were restrained at least once. Nine students at Benbrook Elementary School were restrained at least once. Another 13 schools had one or two students who were restrained at least once during the school year.
But those figures don’t show the full picture of student restraints in the district. Parents have told the Star-Telegram their children are restrained often, in some cases several times per week. Nancy Willeford, the mother of a Monnig Middle School student, said her son gets restrained at school “on almost a daily basis.”
Willeford’s son, Christian Haggard, has autism, she said. Like many people with autism, he doesn’t like being touched, and certain things can make him agitated, she said. He isn’t violent, she said. But when he gets agitated, he sometimes picks chairs up and slams them to the floor. In other cases, he might bang his head against a desk or punch walls in a cool-down room — self-directed behaviors that might hurt Christian but wouldn’t put anyone else in danger, she said.
Texas law allows school staff to restrain students in cases where their behavior poses a threat of serious injury to themselves or others. But Willeford said many of the restraints her son has received seemed unnecessary.
Paschall, the Self-Determination Group assistant, said those kinds of repeated restraints can be traumatic and dangerous for disabled students. But that trauma can extend beyond the student who was restrained, she said.
When students are regularly restrained at school, especially in ways that can cause harm, it can be upsetting for some of their classmates to watch, she said. If those incidents are frequent enough, they can leave students with the impression that they’re a normal part of life, she said.
“Nobody should think that type of behavior is OK,” Paschall said. “Nobody.”