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Tooele man upset with school’s treatment of autistic son

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Posted at 9:23 PM, May 09, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-10 00:35:52-04

TOOELE, Utah - The father of an autistic boy in Tooele says his son was mistreated by a teacher's aide and is upset with the school's response to his complaints.

Aaron Fergusson says on February 26, a teacher's assistant pushed his 15-year-old son Ethan out of a Stansbury High School classroom for being disruptive, and he caught it on tape.

Fergusson contacted school officials about the incident, expecting them to take action, but he says the haven't done enough.

"There's just been a lot of errors with the school and the school is not willing to own up to it and admit it," he said. "Or they're not even willing to say what has been going on is really bad and we're going to fix it."

On the day of the incident, the Fergussons received an email from the school explaining what happened.

The email said Ethan was being disruptive and running around the classroom. After ignoring directions to leave, the teacher redirected him to the door and Ethan pretended to trip.

At first, the Fergussons took the teacher's side, but Ethan kept insisting that he'd been pushed, and they decided to ask for a meeting to see what happened for themselves.

"Our son Ethan kept saying, 'No, I was pushed,' He kept telling us,'`I was pushed, I was pushed, I know I was pushed.' And we said, 'No, Ethan, they're saying that you tripped.'"

In March, the couple went to the school to review the hallway video.

"He's saying he redirected him to the door, and what I see is an arm pushing him out into the hallway," Fergusson said. "I see the first part of the video where you see an arm come out and my son falling forward and I turn to the deputy and I said, 'I need a police report for assault against this man.'"

As the video continues, it shows Ethan returning and standing outside the classroom. When someone opens the door, you can see he ducks into a corner.

"There's a part where an aid comes out of the classroom and my son jumps kind of into the corner and puts his hands up and kinds of shrinks down a little bit and I said, Who is that? Who is talking to him right now," Fergusson said.

Ethan goes back into the classroom, but about ten seconds later, the video shows Ethan being led out by the teacher's aide who was clutching his arm.

"I was upset. We both were upset, extremely upset," Fergusson said.

In a police report filed with the Tooele County Sheriff's Office, the teacher told an officer that he asked Ethan to leave five times and Ethan responded, "Make me."

That's when the aide grabbed Ethan's elbow and "redirected" him to the door, at which point Ethan tripped. According to the statement, the aide is certified in hands-on training and the elbow restraint he used is part of that.

But Fergusson says his son is autistic and doesn't always communicate what he means, and the aide's behavior was inappropriate.

"My son is disabled, he's autistic, he's got an intellectual disability, he's got sensory sensitivities, and he's got an anxiety disorder. So, he can communicate, but he doesn't always say the right things. So, he's saying you can't make me leave, but what he's meaning is, I'm allowed to be in this classroom," Fergusson said.

Fergusson said the school initially put the teacher on administrative leave, but just days later the teacher returned and the Fergussons were left with no explanation.

"The behavior that we're getting described from the school does not match the kid that we know, and that all of our neighbors know and that everyone that interacts with him outside of that," he said.

Ethan no longer interacts with that teacher, but after watching what happened that day, he fears that if the school doesn't take a stronger position, something like that could happen again.

Multiple calls to the Tooele County School District superintendent about the incident weren't returned. But the district told the "Tooele Transcript-Bulletin" that they've taken steps to improve how staffers respond to the needs of autistic students.

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection say that nationally, one in 88 children has autism. In Utah, that rate is one in 47, the highest rate in the country, and now Utah's schools are evolving to help students with disabilities.

At Whittier Elementary in West Valley City, there is an entire wing dedicated to educating students with disabilities.

"I refer to it as going to another planet, or another country, and just sort of plop you're in the middle of it. And you don't know you're supposed to say this, or look this way, or don't look at that," said Tanya Semerad, an autism specialist with the Granite School District.

Semerad works to serve the nearly 200 autistic students in the Granite School District.

"You want to respect the kids with autism and their disability because there is a reason they're doing what they're doing. It`s not to be naughty. They are in a different world. But you have to keep people safe," she said.

That requires following a series of policies implemented by the Utah Office of Education, which includes training for situations like Ethan's in Tooele.

Wendy Bills, supervisor for at-risk programs in the Murray City School District, says educators of students with special needs are taught how to interact with them in a certain way to avoid scaring or hurting them.

"If they're in jeopardy of hurting themselves, or anybody else in the classroom, it's very appropriate to give them physical guidance to help move them out of the classroom," Bills said.

Bills says redirecting, like the teacher's aide in Ethan's case claimed to use, is part of the "least restrictive behavior intervention," which is a set of guidelines educators follow in those cases, including instructions on how to use physical force.

"It's to keep them safe, as well as other people in the classroom," Bills said.

But determining when it's appropriate is always difficult when you're trying to enforce rules in the classroom without overstepping a boundary outside it.

While it's not a perfect system, Semerad believes teachers' intentions are always to help, not hurt their students.

"I just wish people understood and knew more about kids with autism, and I wish people understood and knew more about our challenges in public education with resources because I don't think anybody ever means to do wrong for the kids with autism. They're just stressed," Semerad said.

For more on policies and guidelines for special education instructors, go to schools.utah.gov.