Ruling supports mother’s outrage over mistreatment of special needs daughter
Testimony concluded June 26 in a three-day special education hearing pertaining to the alleged abuse and mistreatment of Pietzsch-MacArthur Elementary special needs student Triniti Thibodeaux. Aug. 28, the results of the hearing were delivered, and BISD is being held liable for the mistreatment of one of the district’s more defenseless students.
Triniti’s mother, Courtney Thibodeaux, says her daughter suffers from Angelman Syndrome, a disorder that makes the child unable to speak and causes seizures, but that did not stop a BISD teacher from striking the girl with a yardstick dubbed “Pepper.”
According to the decision of the special education hearing officer, the young girl’s grandmother dropped Triniti off on Feb. 14, 2014, and asked that, because it was picture day at school, her granddaughter’s photo not be taken. Because of her medical condition, the flash from camera could trigger a seizure. After being photographed anyway, the 6-year-old became upset. While her class was stringing beads, Triniti would not complete her task. An instructor, known as “Classroom Teacher” in the hearing documents and identified in a June article in The Examiner as Marney Essoh, threatened the child, telling the girl she would get Pepper if she did not cooperate. When Triniti did not respond, the teacher took Pepper from the corner of the classroom and loudly struck the desk at which she was sitting. Triniti jerked, visibly startled, per the hearing information. When Triniti still refused to string beads in accordance with her assignment, the classroom teacher struck her, rapping her knuckles with the yardstick.
An applied behavioral analysis (ABA) trainer, Alyssa Barton, witnessed the event and reported it to her employer. Barton testified at the hearing and said not only had Essoh smacked young Triniti with her yardstick, she had also called the girl “ugly” on multiple occasions.
Upon hearing of the February incident, Courtney Thibodeaux had enough. She was already struggling with the school district about Triniti’s education. In spite of an agreement with the district, Courtney said Triniti was not getting the special training from certified special needs professionals as mandated.
Feb. 24, just days after the use of Pepper, Courtney Thibodeaux filed a request for due process. After months of negotiations and a failed April mediation, the hearing took place June 24-26. Thibodeaux alleged that BISD denied her daughter a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).
According to hearing documents, “Petitioner’s numerous allegations broadly fall into several primary categories: that Student was subjected to abuse and/or inappropriate behavioral interventions; that the behavioral and speech services provided to Student were inadequate; that the District failed to fashion an educational plan for Student with appropriate goals and objectives; that the District failed to comply with Student’s educational plan in a variety of other ways; and that the District committed several procedural violations.”
Thibodeaux asked for compensation for her daughter’s private educational services, past and future, and for other evaluations and services because BISD had not adequately provided for those services over and over again, she said.
“The whole thing is just a mess,” Courtney Thibodeaux told The Examiner in June. “It’s a shame really, that I can’t trust my baby with BISD.”
Special education hearing officer for the State of Texas Shannon Kilgore signed her decision Aug. 28. She decided “the District violated IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in several respects and orders appropriate relief.”
Kilgore addressed Thibodeaux’s allegations issue by issue in the decision. Regarding whether or not the district failed to meet the student’s behavioral needs by responding with inappropriate interventions that “furthered regression,” Kilgore found that they did fail, citing name-calling and physical abuse by way of Pepper as being “inappropriate and ineffective.” The district was found to have violated the terms of a settlement agreement “in significant respects” and that Courtney’s decision not to send her child back the class following her mistreatment was reasonable.
Triniti Thibodeaux could return to a BISD classroom, according to Kilgore’s order, but the district has to make accommodations for the child, such as contracting the services of an independent specialist trained in applied behavioral analysis. Kilgore ruled the district should compensate Thibodeaux for the cost of services she purchased from March 2014 until the date of the decision and beyond if Courtney Thibodeaux decides to continue Triniti’s education outside the district. The district was ordered to have someone trained in American Sign Language, to assess Triniti for the use of sign language and devise a plan to integrate it into her communication, and to provide her with an iPad with special software appropriate to her needs.
Kilgore did, however, conclude that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that Triniti suffered “bullying, harassment, and retaliation” that represented a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.