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Parents sue LaPorte school district over allegations teacher used homemade chair to restrain 8-year-old autistic daughter

Charles and Heather Castle filed a lawsuit June 29 in U.S. District Court alleging a teacher and two paraprofessionals at Kingsford Heights Elementary School used a restraining chair, which was built by the teacher's father, to subdue their daughter in the classroom. The chair is depicted in a Oct. 10 photo posted to social media. 

The parents of an 8-year-old autistic girl are suing LaPorte Community School Corp. on allegations the girl's special education teacher belted her into a homemade restraining chair.

Charles and Heather Castle allege in their lawsuit filed June 29 in U.S. District Court a teacher and two paraprofessionals at Kingsford Heights Elementary School used a restraining chair, which was built by the teacher's father, to subdue their daughter in the classroom.

The Castles allege the district violated its own policies regarding student restraint and never informed them their daughter was placed in the device.

Charles Castle said the school attempted to keep him out of the classroom after his child began classes in the fall. The parents became suspicious after their daughter exhibited “new and troubling behaviors” at home, including emotional outbursts and a refusal to wear a seat belt, the lawsuit states.

Superintendent Mark D. Francesconi, of LaPorte Community School Corp., did not respond Thursday to a request for comment. Paula Nichols, director of the South LaPorte County Special Education Cooperative, also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Castles seek unspecified damages for civil rights and constitutional violations.

The allegations

The complaint states the Castle's daughter is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The girl suffers from several common symptoms of autism — she has difficulty adjusting to change, she struggles with mutual conversation or play and is sensitive to stimuli — but she is also intelligent and artistically talented.

The girl has been enrolled in the school district's special education program since preschool. She had an individualized education plan with the district beginning in 2013 and attended a Life Skills classroom from kindergarten through second grade.

The parents had concerns about their child's care before the fall, the complaint states.

In April 2017, the girl came home from school wearing no shoes, socks or coat. The bus driver told her parents the girl was not wearing those items when she got on the bus. The next month the girl came home with a bruise on her cheekbone and elbow, which her teacher said happened when she fell on a desk.

After the fall semester began, the Castles said they noticed a significant change in her daughter's behavior.

She refused to get dressed for school or wear her seat belt in the family's vehicle. She had nightmares, suffered “extreme meltdowns” and lost interest in art. The Castles also began to notice bruises and abrasions on the girl's hips, back and arms, which they photographed, the complaint states.

The school also allegedly stopped Charles Castle from escorting his daughter to her classroom each morning. Charles Castle alleges an administrative assistant would wait until the girl's teacher arrived at the school's entrance before buzzing him into the administrative area. The teacher would then escort the child into the classroom alone, the lawsuit states.

On Sept. 21, Charles Castle greeted a staff member and walked into his daughter's classroom, the complaint states. He was “shocked” to discover a homemade wooden restraint desk with his daughter's name on it was in the classroom. He also observed a tan belt sitting on the top of a similarly constructed desk next to his daughter's desk.

The device had wooden partitions attached to its bottom, right and front, the lawsuit states. Felt was glued on the outside of the desk, but the interior was rough plywood.

The girl's individualized education plan did not provide for the use of a restraint chair, the complaint states, and the Castles allege they never received an incident report detailing the use of restraint.

The parents met with school officials Sept. 29 in an emergency meeting, the complaint states. Nichols allegedly told the parents the district's attorney said “they had not done anything wrong.” She told the Castles the teacher's father constructed the desk.

The lawsuit notes Indiana Administrative Code prohibits the use of physical restraint in schools, “except in situations where the student's behavior poses imminent risk of injury to self or others.”

The code prohibits the use of all “mechanical restraints,” or devices attached or adjacent to a student's body that the student cannot remove and that restricts the student's freedom of movement.

The school district's restraint plan includes the same prohibitions.

The defendants are the school district; the special education cooperative; Nichols; Rebecca Jeffers, supervisor of the special education cooperative; Marcia Alexander, principal of Kingsford Heights Elementary School; teacher Jennifer Oberle; paraprofessionals Teresa Vinson and Katrina Magill; administrative assistant Natasha Henry and Terry Malstaff.

The school district and its employees have not filed a response to the lawsuit, court records state.

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Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Steve covers Lake County courts and social justice issues for The Times. The UW-Milwaukee graduate joined The Times in 2016 after reporting on criminal justice in New Mexico and Wisconsin.