School May Be Liable for Abuse of Autistic Kid

     ORLANDO, Fla. (CN) – A family may sue an Orange County school for autistic children over the alleged repeated abuse of their 6-year-old daughter by school staff, a federal judge ruled.
     Founded in 1996, the Orlando-based Princeton House Charter School began as a non-profit private school and quickly grew into a successful program for autistic children. Two years later, Princeton House reincorporated as a state funded chartered school.
     S.S., a former Princeton House student who suffers from non-verbal autism, claimed school staff abused her on two different occasions. S.S. and her parents sued the school in July, alleging civil rights violations and negligent hiring.
     According to the complaint, in November 2010, two school employees asked S.S. to crawl through a translucent “fabric tunnel”, and, when the girl was too scared to do so, they shoved her into the tunnel and closed the other end, trapping her inside. When S.S. panicked and tried to escape the tunnel, the staff grabbed her by the arms and “forcefully dragged” her out of the tunnel, the family claimed.
     The second episode occurred in January, when school employees dragged S.S. across the classroom and restrained her by placing the back of her sweater over the back of a chair. The family claimed that the school staff let S.S. struggle and cry for about 10 minutes, until the chair tipped over and landed on top of her. As a result of the incident, S.S. suffered severe psychological trauma and bruises on the neck and body, according to the complaint.
     Princeton House asked the court to dismiss the family’s constitutional violations claims. The school argued that the family had failed to allege S.S. was subjected to corporal punishment that “shocks the conscience,” and thus did not have a valid due process violation claim.
     U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell rejected the argument, finding that actions such as grabbing, slapping, chocking or verbally abusing an autistic child were sufficient to “shock the conscience.” The court noted that the “conscience shocking threshold is more quickly reached in cases where the victim is particularly vulnerable to abuse and otherwise defenseless.”
     The family’s allegations that S.S. had been grabbed by the arms, dragged across a room and physically restrained were sufficient to state a constitutional violation claim, according to Presnell’s Sept. 20 order.
     Princeton House also argued that it was not acting under color of state law, another prerequisite for constitutional rights violations.
     But Presnell noted that, although a private entity, Princeton House is funded by the state, which exerts some control over the school.
     The court rejected the school’s motion to dismiss, finding that Princeton House had acted under state authority.
     Charter schools are funded with public money but retain their autonomy from public school districts. Developed as an alternative to the public school system, charter schools promise to improve academic results by developing new and creative teaching methods.

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