Mother Says Autistic Son Was Restrained, Put in Handcuffs After Episode on School Bus

Mother Says Autistic Son Was Restrained, Put in Handcuffs After Episode on School Bus

Kensington family files lawsuit against MCPS, questions training of aide and driver

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A Kensington mother has filed a lawsuit against the county Board of Education, alleging her autistic son was unnecessarily restrained aboard a Montgomery school bus.

File photo

A Kensington family is suing the Montgomery County school board after they say their non-verbal, autistic son was unnecessarily restrained aboard a special education school bus.

The mother of the boy claims her son boarded a bus specifically designated for youth with special needs in October 2017 “stressed and uneasy” and when he tried to indicate he needed help, the bus’s driver and attendant accused him of attempting to hurt them and they physically restrained him before calling police, according to the lawsuit filed last month in county Circuit Court.

The boy, then a student at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, had been enrolled in county public schools since fourth grade and was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 4 years old.

The boy and his mother are named in court documents but Bethesda Beat typically does not identify minors who have not committed a crime, and releasing the mother’s identity could identify the student.

Lawyers for the family and school system spokesman declined comment, citing ongoing litigation.

The student was enrolled in a specialized education program for autistic students and the school system provided transportation to and from the program at Churchill, according to the lawsuit.

On the October 2017 day, the boy sat on the bus and made “loud vocal sounds” in an attempt to get the attention of an adult on the bus, according to the lawsuit, which alleges cameras on board the bus captured the incident.

When nobody responded, the boy became more upset and stood up while the bus was moving. The unidentified bus driver yelled at the boy to sit down, increasing his anxiety and agitation, according to court documents. Eventually, the bus driver stopped the bus and tried to physically restrain the boy, while the bus aide called police and allegedly “began to scream hysterically” that the boy “is going to kill us.”

Montgomery County police responded and escorted the boy off the bus, placed him in handcuffs and had him sit on the curb, where his mother found him “wailing and in distress,” when she arrived, according to the lawsuit.

After, the bus aide and driver were recorded on the bus cameras saying, “He tried to bite me, but I took him out,” and, “We are not allowed to hit him, but what were we going to do? It’s either him or me,” according to the lawsuit.

A current job listing from the school system for a special education bus attendant says, among other things, aides are responsible for exercising “constant alertness to children’s physical problems” and remaining “calm in an emergency situation.”

School system policy also prohibits the use of restraint on a student in most situations, unless there is an emergency situation and it is necessary to keep another person safe from “imminent, serious, physical harm” after “less intrusive, nonphysical interventions have failed.”

Restraint can also be used if a special education student’s individual education plan outlines circumstances in which it can be used and parents have given consent, according to the policy.

The plaintiff argues staff aboard buses for special education students should be properly trained to interact and help students with special needs, and say the bus driver and aide’s actions were “done in complete disregard for” their training or “exhibited behavior indicative of someone who has not been properly trained.”

The mother says the school board does not have policies and procedures in place to ensure special needs students are transported with reasonable care.

The mother asks for a jury trial and at least $225,000 in damages for the physical and emotional distress the incident caused her son. A trial has not yet been scheduled, but a pre-trial hearing is scheduled for early 2020.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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