Autism advocates are concerned an Indiana Court of Appeals' decision to drop charges against a special education teacher who helped restrain a special needs student could send the wrong message to Indiana teachers.
Catherine Littleton, a teacher at Perry Meridian Middle School, was originally charged with confinement, battery and neglect of a dependent in connection with her treatment of a 12-year-old boy with autism in February 2010.
Authorities said the student, who had a history of behavioral problems, began striking himself in the classroom.
When other measures did not calm him down, investigators said Littleton allowed her teacher's aide to tape socks over the boy's hands, use orthopedic belts to tie his legs to a chair, then tipped the chair onto its back on the classroom floor.
The Appeals Court on Thursday dismissed the charges against Littleton, calling the action neither "an unreasonable use of force or based upon an unreasonable belief that such action was necessary to protect (the student) and others in the classroom."
But the Autism Society of Indiana and parents of special needs students expressed concern Friday that the case could affect how teachers restrain children.
"There are guidelines, and there are ways to do it effectively, because you can really hurt someone," said Executive Director Dana Renay. "We need to work harder to educate parents and make sure schools have their policies in place and people know what their children's rights are.
Joanne Kehoe, whose 6-year-old son is autistic, said she was extremely disappointed by the ruling.
"I consider that to be an assault on the child when she's supposed to be taking care of the child," she said. "I can't find any excuse or anyway that's not neglect."
The court said Littleton's actions fall under qualified immunity, which provides a teacher legal protection "with respect to a disciplinary action take to promote student conduct
if the action is taken in good faith and is reasonable."
Littleton's attorney said the ruling is critical in teachers' fight for protection in the classroom.
"As a veteran teacher of over 25 years, she is very relieved, having never been accused of misconduct before," John Kautzman said in a statement to 6News. "This decision is also a significant statement by our courts recognizing the important concept of the qualified immunity granted to teachers by the General Assembly, protecting teachers from civil and criminal liability when they act reasonably in furtherance of their legitimate classroom responsibilities."
The Indiana Attorney General's Office has 30 days to appeal the ruling, but officials said they have not decided if they will take that step.
"Here the Court of Appeals had to decide a difficult issue involving qualified immunity for teachers -- an important legal standard that we support -- and we respect the ruling of the Court in this case," AG spokesman Bryan Corbin said in an email to 6News.
Littleton has been on unpaid leave from the district. The teacher's union, Perry Education Association, is standing behind her.
"I think she will get her job back," said union President Terry Rice. "What she did was sufficient and well done in order to protect the student from hurting himself and other students in the classroom."
The Perry Township School District was unable to provide a copy of the district's seclusion and restraint policy to 6News.
Copyright Copyright 2011 by
All rights reserved.
This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.