Parents of special-needs children at the Killeen Independent School District say they continue to be ignored when it comes to special education services many are entitled to by law.
In the week since the Herald reported Aug. 16 on William and Laura Thomas’ recording in May of staff raising voices at students in their son’s Iduma Elementary life skills class, more parents have come forward to share their stories about the district, which served close to 5,000 special-needs students last year.
Not only do parents claim their special-needs children are often not given the services they are entitled to, but some also say their children have been abused either psychologically or physically with little accountability on the part of the Killeen ISD.
District officials, however, say a “dedicated staff of educators is ready to partner with parents to educate students,” according to a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to work with students and parents to ensure the success of every child, in every classroom, every day.”
Sally and Dirk Davis, whose 21-year-old nonverbal autistic son, Austin, has been in the Killeen ISD special education program his whole life, said they are grateful parents of special-needs students are speaking out.
“We are so thankful; we thought that day would never come,” Dirk Davis said. “We had given up.”
The Davises described years of complications with Killeen ISD and in particular, an unsettling event in Austin’s childhood while he was attending Nolan Middle School.
“At Nolan, you would have to fight him every day just to get (him) to go to school. Some days I would take off of work, because it just wasn’t worth it. My wife couldn’t take off of work. I would have to stay with him all day,” Davis said.
On the evening of Aug. 23, 2006, Sally Davis said she discovered unexplained bruises on Austin’s lower legs.
“I asked (Austin) what happened and he said, ‘I’m bad. I’m bad, I’m bad.’” Sally Davis said. “I said ‘No, you aren’t. You are not bad.’”
“Austin doesn’t pick up words easily — when he hears it once or twice. You have to say it repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. I don’t think it was just that one event,” Dirk Davis said.
The couple said they took Austin to his pediatrician, Dr. Stuart Coles, the next day. According to medical documents provided to the Herald by the Davis family, “(Austin had) multiple bruises on his left lower leg that are red and blue indicating they are about one day old. They are not explained by any accident or illness and therefore more consistent with non-accidental trauma, child abuse. Investigation is warranted.”
A Child Protective Services investigation of both the family and school followed.
“The CPS investigation as I understand it, they asked each participant — the teachers and the aides — asked them if they knew anything about it. Everybody said, ‘Nope, don’t know how he got them,’ and that was the end of the investigation,” Dirk Davis said.
District officials can’t comment on specific cases, but said, “Killeen ISD works individually with parents to address concerns. The district has a systematic, tiered approach to support parents. Concerns are best addressed at the campus level where staff members know and understand the individual student. If parents need additional support, district level staff are available to address the concern and work toward a solution.”
Texas Department of Family Protective Services spokeswoman Julie Moody she said although she also could not comment on any specific case, it’s important for parents to report incidents of suspected child abuse immediately.
“Parents need to call CPS and report this immediately,” Moody said. “I’m sure that a doctor who examines the child and they suspect child abuse will also call and report this. There’s a law. They have to do that. But I think it’s important for parents to take action themselves. If they suspect that someone is mistreating their children in school, then they need to report it immediately. As a parent, I would also talk to the school.”
Once parents report suspected abuse to the school, Moody said parents shouldn’t expect immediate action from CPS.
“We’re mandated to investigate the allegations of any abuse or neglect of children by school personnel in a school setting,” Moody said. “But unlike a CPS investigation that involves a parent or guardian of the victim, the CPS involvement with the school is pretty limited. We are just an investigator and we turn over all of our results to the Texas Education Agency and then to the school.”
From there, it’s up to law enforcement — in this case, the Killeen Independent School District Police Department — to bring the results of any investigation to the Bell County District Attorney for prosecution.
But many parents said prosecutors were at times unable, or unwilling, to put nonverbal and autistic children on the stand and, therefore, would not prosecute cases of teacher-on-student abuse.
“I have heard that on multiple occasions and it makes me crazy,” said Judge Charles Van Orden with Bell County’s Centex Child Protection Court. “It’s almost like someone is saying, ‘Well, because we can’t get the victim to testify or be believable, the criminal has gotten away with a crime,’ and it just makes me nuts to hear that.”
Once prosecutors decline to press criminal charges, there is often no further action taken in a case. Beyond that, firing a teacher or aide due to allegations of child abuse that do not result in prosecution and/or conviction could expose the school district to a wrongful termination suit.
Some say therein lies the problem. “I think it’s fair to say most parents want to assume that the school district is going to do what they are supposed to and take care of the kids,” Van Orden said.
Sally Davis said she warns friends to look at their options before enrolling their special-needs children in Killeen ISD.
“I tell parents I have been through this (expletive) and I’m not going to let you drag yourself through it. I tell them about it, you have to fight like hell to get what you need,” she said.
Dirk Davis said parents must be the education advocate in their child’s corner.
“I tell every parent to either write or call the Texas Education Association and get a copy of the Individuals with Disabilities Act and start reading. You have to get educated on what the rights and rules and obligations are so when you’re talking with the school you know what they should be doing it — make sure they’re doing it — because a lot of times they’re not,” he said.
Moving forward, the couple said they hope Killeen ISD will facilitate parents in forming support groups, possibly even a parental advisory board.
“(Killeen ISD) needs to form, a parental advisory panel — get some of the vocal parents on there. They need to invite the parents that are raising a stink all the time; they need to be a part of that advisory board,” he said.
“We don’t want a bunch of ‘yes’ people; we want people who will speak out honestly, those who will say ‘Here’s our problem, now let’s look into how we fix it.’ Let’s just lay it out on the table and talk about our problems. I know we won’t resolve anything until both sides can sit down and talk.”
District officials said, “Killeen ISD always welcomes parents and community members as partners in the education of our students.”
The district continues “working individually with each family to build relationships and trust between parents and staff members.”