INDIANAPOLIS - A court battle has unfolded in Indianapolis federal court after a mother said she discovered that two teachers had been suspended over the handling of her son in a restraint room.
"They could have killed my son," the boy's mother, Melissa Miller, told the Call 6 Investigators.
Her 9-year-old son, Derrick Miller, was a second grader at Eleanor Skillen elementary school on Wade Street in southeast Indianapolis when the mother found out about the suspensions of his teacher and a teacher's aide.
"A teacher assistant… had held a towel over my son's nose and mouth, and I said, 'Wait a minute, he's asthmatic. He can't breathe!'" Melissa Miller said.
According to court filings and Indianapolis Public Schools records, the child was being held in a "small closet-like room equipped with padded walls," referred to as a "safe room," when a teacher's aide covered his face with a towel for 10 to 15 minutes as the boy was screaming.
The district suspended the teacher's aide, saying that he covered the student's mouth to keep him from screaming and interrupting.
Indianapolis Public Schools suspension papers spell out that a male teacher's aide, Aundra Lambert, was suspended three days for compromising the safety of a student. The teacher in that classroom, Glenda Roundtree, was suspended two days without pay for asking a parent to lie about the incident to avoid getting into trouble, according to the district's suspension paperwork. Each suspension was levied in August, just a few days after the incident happened.
Indianapolis Public Schools spokesman John Althardt said the district would have no comment about the incident or the district's restraint room policies because the case is now in litigation.
"I know he was crying out for help and I wasn't there to help him, so that's hurtful," said the boy's mother. "This was an incident that could have really harmed my son."
A state hearing examiner, who reviewed the district's handling of the incident, noted that Child Protective Services has already investigated and found the child did not have any difficulty in breathing and required no medical treatment.
Court filings indicate that the school district denied that the towel ever covered the boy's nose, in addition to his mouth.
"My son was helpless. He was placed on the teacher's lap and he could not move," said the mother.
Her attorney, Andrea Ciobanu, said, "That presented a huge problem from a safety, procedural issue."
Ciobanu said the mother was not officially notified that the boy had been restrained, but rather the teacher let it slip during a meeting a few days after the event.
Ciobanu said the teacher was suspended for urging the mother to lie about how she discovered the boy's restraint.
"She didn't want mother to say that she found out from the teacher because teacher was concerned that she would lose her job for not reporting this in a timely manner," Ciobanu said.
Efforts to reach Lambert and Roundtree for their sides of the story were not successful.
After his suspension, Lambert was transferred to another school and Roundtree was also teaching at a different school as of Monday afternoon.
The use of restraint rooms has drawn controversy over recent months, with the Indiana Legislature considering a bill that would restrict how restraints or "time out rooms" are used statewide. Senate Bill 345 passed the Indiana Senate last week and is now being considered in the House.
Lawmakers started taking action on the measure around the same time that a child with Down syndrome had her feet bound with duct tape during special education classes in the Wayne Township School District.
In Miller's case, the state hearing examiner ruled that use of the restraint room was proper. However, he ruled that the district owes 21 days of additional classroom time (known as compensatory education) for days that the child missed because of the restraint event.
The school district filed a lawsuit against Miller in an effort to overturn that ruling. The district also asked the court to order Miller to pay the district's attorney fees incurred because of the controversy. Miller then filed her own action in hopes of avoiding the large legal bill.
Attorney Ciobanu wrote in her filing that the district has been treating the mother and student as though they're engaging in wrongdoing. She said forcing a parent to pay up for daring to fight for their child could discourage other parents from advocating for special needs children.
"The fact that they've never offered an apology... Mother is upset about that," Ciobanu said.
She is asking the federal judge to force the school district to pay her legal bills, based on the suspensions of the two teachers and the ruling by the state hearing examiner.