Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mother questions handcuffing of son with Down syndrome

From the Naples News in Florida:

NAPLES — A 17-year-old Palmetto Ridge High School student with Down syndrome was bound by his hands and feet on Tuesday morning and removed from his classroom by wheelchair after Collier County sheriff’s deputies say he repeatedly punched his teacher in the face.

Though the student, Michael Szanto, (pictured) was not arrested, his mother said her son’s treatment was not warranted.

“This is a child with special needs,” Sagrario Szanto said. “He has Down syndrome. His brain doesn’t work like yours or mine.”

Officials from the Sheriff’s Office and the Collier County School District say that the entire affair is unfortunate but the actions taken Tuesday morning by the teachers and deputies involved were within policy.

“In my review, both the teacher and the sheriff’s deputies followed what would be considered normal procedure in this situation,” Assistant Superintendent John Kelly said.

The situation started around 8:30 a.m. when Palmetto Ridge teacher, Joseph Rader, attempted to put Michael in a time-out room adjacent to the main room, according to a Sheriff’s Office incident report. The report said that Michael “was not having a good morning.”

While being put in the time-out room, Michael punched Rader in the face several times.

School administrators and youth relations deputies responded to the room, and Rader told them Michael needed to be removed because he was using profanities in front of the other special needs students.

When deputies grabbed Michael by the arms, he became limp on the ground and then kicked one of the deputies in the knee, reports said. Deputies handcuffed Michael and then put him in a wheelchair obtained from the nurse’s office.

Because Michael continued to kick while sitting in the wheelchair, deputies bound his legs with plastic flex-cuffs, similar to a zip-tie, and then wheeled him out of the classroom.

Rader declined to press charges in the case.

Sheriff’s Office Capt. Tim Guerrette said deputies attempted to use calming techniques before elevating their response.

“I believe the deputies were prudent in what they did,” Guerrette said. “It was within policy. It’s really a lose-lose to have to do that. ... It’s unfortunate we have to get involved at all. The deputies are very sensitive to the special needs kids.”

Sagrario Szanto said her son didn’t deserve to be handcuffed.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He was sitting on a wheelchair and he had handcuffs on his feet and his hands behind his back. He just said ‘I’m sorry mommy.’ I said ‘You can’t do that to him. You went too far. You went to far. You’re trained to deal with criminals. My son is not a criminal.’”

Michael’s father, Robert Szanto, said he’s been asking school officials for two years to have Michael evaluated by the school psychologist and for a behavior modification plan to be put in place. He said he feels like he was “blown off.”

“Generally after an incident like this, the school does call in the parents to review the behavior plan,” Kelly said. “The school and the parents are going to have to work closely together to understand what happened in this incident and to come up with a plan if it were to happen again.”