Fort Worth student with autism died after being restrained at school. What happened?

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Ebonie Baltimore got a call on March 1 from the group home where her nephew, Xavier Hernandez, lived. Something had happened to Hernandez at school, the caller said, and he’d been taken to the emergency room.

When Baltimore and several other family members got to John Peter Smith Hospital, they were led to a private room. Baltimore knew something was wrong when hospital workers came in. Some were in tears, she said. Baltimore’s mother, Joyce Baltimore, asked the lead doctor to give her some good news.

“There’s no good news,” the doctor said.

Hernandez was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after noon that day, according to records from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. He was 21. Medical examiners haven’t yet determined his cause and manner of death.

Hernandez, who had autism, went to Boulevard Heights, a school in the Fort Worth district for disabled students. Teachers at Boulevard Heights restrained Hernandez earlier on the day he died, a district spokesman confirmed. An attorney with Disability Rights Texas, a Dallas-based disability rights group, said the organization is investigating reports that those restraints were improper and unnecessary.

Ebonie Baltimore said the district has refused to give her family any information about what happened in the last hours of her nephew’s life.

“I need to know what happened to him,” Baltimore said. “We deserve to know.”

Disability Rights Texas is also investigating the restraint of another Boulevard Heights student, fourth-grader Toni Crenshaw, in an incident that was caught on video in May. The video had been circulating on social media before someone called it to the attention of Toni’s mother, Sandra Crosby.

A bystander who recorded the video said a teacher appeared to be sitting on Toni, which is not an approved method of restraint.

“It’s like you’re watching your kid get beat up, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Crosby said.

The incidents at Boulevard Heights follow a report released by Disability Rights Texas in December that says school districts across Texas use physical restraints against disabled students far more often than their peers. Disability rights advocates, parents of disabled students and some in Congress want to see stricter limits placed on when and how schools are allowed to restrain students.

Arlington family wants answers in student’s death

Baltimore, who lives in Arlington, said her family decided to enroll Hernandez at Boulevard Heights because it seemed like the best fit for a student like him. In Texas, students who receive special education services may remain in public schools until they’re 22. So Hernandez would have aged out of the district later this year.

Baltimore had no children of her own when Hernandez was born, so he became like her son, she said. Hernandez was smart, energetic and funny, she said. He was never violent, she said. Like many people with autism, Hernandez often hyperfixated on certain things, she said, especially electronics. He was particularly good with computers, she said.

After Hernandez died, a staff member at his group home told Baltimore that Hernandez got on the school bus that morning as usual. Boulevard Heights’ school day begins at 8:10 a.m. A Fort Worth Police Department incident report shows someone from the school called 911 at 10:44 a.m. to report an injured person. Hernandez was in critical condition when paramedics arrived, a MedStar spokesman said.

Because of Hernandez’s disability, he was never supposed to be alone at school, Baltimore said. Someone met him every morning as he got off the bus and walked him to his classroom, and teachers were with him throughout the day. So, Baltimore said, someone knows what happened to Hernandez between the time he arrived at school and the time the 911 call was placed.

After Hernandez died, Baltimore called Boulevard Heights and asked principal Terry Guthrie what happened to her nephew. Guthrie sounded like he was reading from a script, she said. He told her he’d performed CPR on Hernandez before paramedics arrived, but wouldn’t tell her anything about what happened, she said.

The Star-Telegram requested all records documenting student restraints at Boulevard Heights on the date of Hernandez’s death. District officials refused to release those documents, citing protections under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. A district spokesman declined to say whether the district took disciplinary action against any school staff member following Hernandez’s death. The Fort Worth Police Department’s homicide unit is investigating Hernandez’s death, a police spokesman confirmed.

Texas schools must notify parents about restraints

Anytime schools restrain a student, state law requires that they make “a good faith effort” to notify the student’s parents or guardian. Schools are also required to send a written notification to parents within 24 hours documenting where and when the restraint happened, which staff members were involved, the behavior that prompted the restraint and any steps school staff members took to de-escalate the situation before they restrained the student. After Hernandez died, his family got a notification from the district saying he’d been restrained that day.

But that doesn’t always happen. Crosby, the mother of the Boulevard Heights fourth-grader who was restrained, said the district never notified her about the incident that was caught on video.

On the morning of May 7, Isabella Ellis was at Sanguinet Park with a boy whom she nannies. From the park, which is adjacent to Boulevard Heights, she saw a girl hop the school’s fence. A teacher jumped over the fence, caught the girl, pulled her arms behind her back and pinned her face-first against the fence, Ellis said. Another teacher tried to bring the girl back across the fence, but she broke away and ran, Ellis said.

As teachers chased the girl, Ellis pulled out her phone and began recording the incident. The recording shows six teachers holding the girl on the ground as she shrieks at them to get off her. Ellis said she could hear the girl saying she couldn’t breathe. In the video, one of the teachers who Ellis said appears to sit on the girl warns Ellis not to post the video without the school’s permission.

Crosby said she found out about the incident days later, when she got a text message from a number she didn’t recognize. “There’s a video of your daughter going around Facebook,” the message read. “You need to go look at it.”

So Crosby went online and found the video. When she saw Toni’s teacher sitting on her, she was shocked and in disbelief, she said. She screamed and wept. When Toni got home from school that day, Crosby asked her why she’d never told her about the incident. Toni said she didn’t know. She told her about other things that had happened before, including a time she said a teacher put her elbow into Toni’s neck while she was restraining her. Teachers sometimes push other students up against walls or slam them to the ground, Toni said.

The most horrifying thing, Crosby said, was that Toni didn’t think the incident on the playground was important enough to tell her about. Crosby worried her daughter thought things like that were a normal part of life. If Toni didn’t think the incident was worth mentioning, Crosby wondered, what else went on at the school that she hadn’t heard about?

“It did something to my soul,” Crosby said. “... I had a long talk with my baby and let her know it’s never OK for this to happen.”

Crosby said she’s gotten written notifications when Toni’s been restrained in the past, as required by state law. But she never got a notification after the incident on the playground. She called Guthrie, the Boulevard Heights principal, to talk about what she saw on the video. Guthrie told Crosby he didn’t think the incident looked that bad, she said. Frustrated, Crosby hung up the phone.

After the playground incident, Crosby didn’t pull Toni out of Boulevard Heights. But she also didn’t feel she could safely send her back to school in person. So Toni will finish the school year online, and Crosby is working with a staffer from Disability Rights Texas to find Toni another school for next school year, she said.

Crosby said she wants to see Boulevard Heights teachers and staff retrained on how they restrain students. Many of the students at the school are already dealing with trauma or other mental issues, she said. When teachers restrain them improperly or too often, it can make those problems worse, she said.

“Things need to change,” she said. “They need to do something.”

Disability rights group calls for fewer restraints

Disability Rights Texas, the organization that’s investigating the two incidents, is the federally-mandated protection and advocacy system for the state, as laid out in a group of federal laws known collectively as the P&A Acts. Those laws grant the organization the authority to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect and represent people with developmental disabilities regarding rights violations.

In December, the group released a report showing that students with disabilities represented the overwhelming majority of the restraint incidents in districts across the state. The group reviewed records from the 2018-19 school year and found that, although students with disabilities make up only 10% of the state’s student population, they accounted for 91% of the restraints that school year.

Out of the 10 biggest school districts in the state, Fort Worth had the third-highest rate of restraint, behind the Austin school district and San Antonio’s Northside district, according to the report.

Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said it’s difficult to know how Texas’ rate of restraints of disabled students compares with other states because of differences in the way states track restraints, if they track them at all. It isn’t unreasonable to expect that students with disabilities would account for an outsized share of the restraints in the state, since some of those students have behavioral issues that can be a challenge for teachers to manage, he said. But in Texas’ public schools, the use of restraints against students with disabilities is excessive, he said. That can lead to physical and emotional trauma, he said.

In the report, the group called on the state to bar schools from using prone and supine restraints — those in which the student is lying either face-down or face-up on the ground. Those restraints are more likely to block the student’s airway, Rynders said.

“That’s how you really kill children,” he said.

Congressional Democrats reintroduced legislation late last month that would bar schools that receive federal money from using restraints that restrict a child’s breathing, including prone and supine restraints. The bill, called the Keeping All Students Safe Act, would also bar schools from placing children in seclusion or restraining students except in cases where the student’s behavior “poses an imminent danger of serious physical injury” to the student, teachers, staff or other students.

In a news release, the bill’s sponsors noted that schools disproportionately use restraints against disabled students and students of color.

“Every child should be safe and protected while in school,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat. “Sadly, that is not always the case. Despite evidence that seclusion and restraint practices make schools less safe, thousands of students are still subjected to these dangerous discipline methods.”

Teachers need better restraint training, attorney says

Rynders declined to discuss the Disability Rights Texas investigation into the incidents at Boulevard Heights. But he said teachers statewide need better training, not only in de-escalation, but also in techniques for restraining students safely.

Texas state law requires that any school staff members who are likely to need to restrain a student go through training on how to do so safely. Rynders said most of the companies that provide that training focus their efforts on talking with teachers about de-escalation and other ways to avoid situations where they need to restrain a student. De-escalation training is important, he said, but teachers also need to know how to restrain a student safely when the need arises.

In settings where restraints happen often, like schools for students with behavioral issues, that training should happen frequently, Rynders said. He’s seen cases where teachers who went through a training program years earlier don’t remember their training when they’re called upon to restrain a student. In other cases, districts have sent a single person to go through a training program so they could come back and offer that training to others in the district. But as years pass, if that trainer doesn’t get consistent training, he or she could end up improperly training dozens or even hundreds of other people in their districts, he said.

In other cases, Rynders said, teachers who have been trained correctly don’t follow their training. He’s seen cases in Texas in which a teacher insisted he or she restrained a student using a method that was included in a training session, but investigators later learned the teacher took the student to the floor and sat on the student. No reputable training company trains teachers to use that method to restrain students, he said.

Rynders said he’d like to see school districts require teachers and principals to do a review after every incident in which they restrain a student. Those situations are always difficult, he said, and it’s common for teachers to look back after the fact and wish they’d done something differently. A review, especially in cases where the incident was recorded on video, could give teachers a chance to learn from their mistakes, he said.

Texas teachers learn de-escalation before restraint

Many Texas school districts, including Fort Worth, contract with the Milwaukee-based firm Crisis Prevention Institute to train teachers how to restrain students. Susan Driscoll, president of the institute, said schools should only restrain students when they present an imminent safety risk to themselves or other people. Before teachers restrain a student, they need to assess how likely it is that the student will continue to escalate the situation and the risk of damage, she said. Even in cases where a student is likely to escalate but he or she won’t be in a position to do much harm, teachers should avoid using physical restraints, she said.

The institute’s training places most of its focus on de-escalation and decision-making skills, Driscoll said. Trainers talk with teachers about the importance of keeping the thinking part of their brain engaged during crises and keeping the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight response — from hijacking their decisions and actions, she said.

Trainers also talk to teachers about how to recognize the four stages of a crisis, Driscoll said. Those stages can happen in any order. The first stage is anxiety — when a student is anxious, he or she may pace or show other signs of distress, she said. The best response at that stage is for teachers to show support and empathy, she said.

The second stage is defensiveness, she said. A student in this stage might challenge a teacher or refuse to cooperate. If a student challenges a teacher, it’s best for the teacher to avoid the challenge and look for other ways to defuse the situation, she said.

In the third stage, the student gets into risk behavior that could present a threat to themselves or someone else, she said. The most severe response in these cases is restraint. But there are other options teachers should try before restraining a student, she said. In some cases, the teacher him- or herself may be triggering the outburst, sometimes through no fault of their own, she said. In those instances, it’s best for the teacher to hand the situation off to another teacher, she said.

The fourth stage is tension reduction, she said. Students reach this point when the worst of the crisis is over and they’re beginning to calm down, she said. In this stage, students may start to cry and say they’re sorry, she said.

When teachers have exhausted all other options and they need to restrain a student, they need to do so in a coordinated way, she said. If more than one teacher is involved, or if a teacher needs to hand the situation off to a colleague, it’s important that they use the same vocabulary to avoid miscommunications, she said. Thorough, consistent training is an important part of that coordination, she said.

Driscoll said she wasn’t familiar with the video of Boulevard Heights teachers restraining Toni Crenshaw. But the institute doesn’t train teachers to restrain students by taking them to the ground, she said. Most students who escalate situations have trauma in their backgrounds, she said. Holding a student to the ground is a form of trauma in itself, she said, and it can have long-lasting effects for those students. And the institute would never train a teacher to sit on a student during a restraint, she said.

“That is horrible,” she said.

‘Someone is responsible’

Three weeks after Hernandez’s death, his family held a funeral in his hometown of Jasper, about 130 miles northeast of Houston. Some relatives drove hundreds of miles to attend, said Baltimore, his aunt. The school district sent a bouquet of flowers. It was the only correspondence her family has gotten from the district about his death, she said.

Months later, Hernandez’s family still doesn’t know how or why he died. Baltimore said she isn’t giving up. She’s awaiting an autopsy report that she hopes sheds more light on what happened. Once she has that information, she plans to speak to lawyers, she said.

Baltimore said she feels like the district is covering up Hernandez’s death. She’s frustrated that she can’t get any information about what happened on the morning he died. She wants accountability — either financial or criminal — for whomever is responsible.

“My nephew didn’t just die of natural causes,” Baltimore said. “Someone is responsible for his death.”

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