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Federal investigators largely clear school district in investigation over handcuffed autistic student
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Federal investigators largely clear school district in investigation over handcuffed autistic student

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Pineview Elementary School

Pineview Elementary School is pictured in March. An incident at the school during which an autistic boy was handcuffed prompted a federal investigation in which the school district was largely cleared.

Federal investigators largely cleared the Natrona County School District of wrongdoing in how school officials treated an autistic student who was restrained and handcuffed late last year.

The child’s mother filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that continued six allegations of mishandling the student and his special needs. The allegations spanned several months and touched on a wide range of concerns, but the complaint was filed after Pineview Elementary School officials called the police on the 9-year-old during a behavioral incident. An officer who responded to the scene bear-hugged the student, took him to the ground and handcuffed him.

The mother alleged that the district and Pineview had failed to respond to other students harassing the child, that the child was disciplined differently than his peers, that his special education plan was not fully implemented, that officials didn’t properly and quickly evaluate the child for autism, that the student wasn’t given a one-on-one aide and that the student was repeatedly restrained.

In five of the six allegations, investigators found that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges. After reviewing records and conducting interviews, investigators said the student was never restrained and never requested an individual aide, that harassment was met with a quick response by officials, that discipline the student received was less than his peers after an altercation between the classmates, and that the district did “consider the diagnosis (of autism) and adjusted the student’s plan” as a result.

The investigators did find the district had not fully implemented the student’s individual education plan, which is the guiding document for how educators and the student’s family meet the student’s special needs and advance toward academic and social goals. The mother of the student told the Star-Tribune earlier this year that her son’s plan called for regular occupational therapy. Investigators found the student had not received as much occupational therapy as he was supposed to.

As part of closing out the investigation, which moved swiftly, the district agreed to provide “compensatory services” to the student in the form of one 20-minute occupational therapy session. Proof of this offer and discussions between the family and the district must be submitted to the Office of Civil Rights.

A message sent to the mother earlier this week was not returned.

“The District has agreed to the resolution terms,” the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, Verbal Echols, said in a statement. “Whenever there is a complaint filed, at any level, we look to examine and see how we can improve, as needed, to ensure that all students, staff and school visitors are safe and supported.”

The Star-Tribune reported in March that Pineview officials called the police after the student had a behavioral episode. An officer responded, and after attempting to de-escalate the situation, he took the student to the ground. The student, police said, asked the officer to take him to jail and to tase him.

The officer began to lead him out of the school, intending to place him in his patrol car. That move was praised by an independent attorney who reviewed the case for the Star-Tribune earlier this year. But the situation escalated again after a comment by school officials. Eventually, the student was carried out of the school and would later be placed on a hold at Wyoming Medical Center.

Casper police officials told the Star-Tribune earlier this year that the responding officer handled the situation perfectly. The student’s mother also largely praised the officer but was critical of the school district.

The resolution of the federal probe is the second such investigation into Natrona County School District that’s been closed out with largely no wrongdoing identified in recent years. In fall 2018, the office ended an investigation into allegations relating to sexual violence at Kelly Walsh. Echols said then that the district “prevailed” in that inquiry.

While there are no ongoing federal investigations into the Natrona County School District, other educational entities in Wyoming are facing such inquiries. The University of Wyoming is currently being investigated for two separate allegations of sexual violence. Sheridan County School District No. 2 is facing a probe into racial harassment. Casper College has for 15 months had an open investigation into disability-related access allegations.

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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