Autistic students in Harford County suffered abuse in a special education program in which staffers sprayed water bottles at elementary school children and penned them in with furniture to discipline them, according to an investigation by the Maryland Disability Law Center.
The law center detailed "abuse and neglect" in a report on the regional autism program at Hickory Elementary School. The nonprofit agency is designated by the state to independently investigate such allegations involving people with disabilities.
According to the report, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the attorneys also found that students were threatened with a rolling pin or markers — autistic students can have adverse reactions to loud noises or potent smells.
The law center blamed unqualified staff and a lack of resources and accountability in the district.
"At every level, the pieces that should have been in place weren't there," said Leslie Seid Margolis, managing attorney at the law center, who conducted the investigation last fall. "So it just all fell apart."
Harford County school officials said they cooperated with the law center's investigation. In its written response to the report, the district pledged to offer services to help students catch up and to provide more training and professional development for staff.
"We have worked collaboratively with the Maryland Disability Law Center in addressing the issues that were identified and continue to do so," Jillian Lader, a spokeswoman for Harford County Public Schools, said in a statement.
Lader also said the district's autism program has been expanded from three locations to six this school year. As a result of the expansion, officials said, class sizes were reduced and "students have increased opportunity for inclusive learning opportunities."
Citing student privacy concerns, Lader said she could not comment on specific allegations.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that schools provide students with disabilities a free public education that's suitable for them.
The law center launched its investigation at Hickory after receiving phone calls and an anonymous letter sent to parents. The center determined that it had probable cause to investigate, a threshold required under federal law, and attorneys interviewed staff and parents and reviewed the educational records of nine students. They focused on one class of 10 autistic students.
The report found "pervasive and longstanding neglect" and said that the program used "aversive behavior intervention techniques."
Students were isolated and excluded — without legal documentation required for such extreme measures — and in some cases furniture was used to confine them to part of the classroom, according to the report. The autism program was held in a separate building.
Staffers in the program also banged a rolling pin, used by students to roll out Play-Doh, on desks and in one case drew a mustache on a student with a marker, the attorneys found.
In addition, the center found, students didn't get the services they needed because they weren't assessed regularly.
For example, schools are required to keep on record individualized education plans and to continually update them with the students' performance, needs and goals. But the center found that the autism program simply copy-and-pasted the same plans from year to year, and didn't even fix typos.
As a result, the law center found, students regressed in communication skills and behavior. Some mimicked behavior, including harsh language, that they witnessed at school at home, according to the report.
As for training, the center found that one staffer held the title of "verbal behavioral specialist" for nearly four years before receiving training, while some support staff had only one or two days of training in skills needed to work with autistic children.
The center also recommended that the evaluation process be strengthened to recognize lapses.
Margolis, who wrote the Hickory Elementary report, said she hopes that the Harford school district commits to repairing the "systemic breakdowns." The attorney helped lead the center's investigative team that fought a 30-year legal battle against Baltimore schools, which resulted in widespread changes to educational programs for special-needs students.
"You can't turn around a program as deeply troubled as this program was with a few three-hour trainings," Margolis said. "They are really going to have to make an ongoing commitment.
"It's going to take a while to make the county's autism program the program it needs to be," she added. "It will take a long time to gain the trust of parents in the county, and I think they're taking the steps to do that, but it's not happening overnight."
Harford officials said they would perform random audits of individualized education plans for students. And Lader said the autism program is working with two board-certified specialists as consultants to improve the program, which has been moved to the main school building.
District officials also vowed better communication with parents. During the investigation, parents told the law center attorneys that they did not feel welcome in the classroom and had lost trust in the school system.
School officials did report the marker allegations to the Harford County Child Protective Services, which declined to investigate. Jerome Reyerson, director of the Harford County Department of Social Services, said he could not comment to protect the privacy of those involved.
Jeanette Jennings, former principal of Hickory Elementary, said she was placed on administrative leave in October 2014 through February of this year, and then retired. She said other staff members also were disciplined by the school district.
Harford County officials declined to comment, saying they don't discuss personnel issues.
Jennings said she believes she and other staffers were made scapegoats. She said that she reported a water-spraying incident the same day it happened and that her timely and appropriate handling of the incident was noted in her evaluation last year that rated her "highly effective."
She said she opposed putting the autistic students in a separate building and for years asked for more resources for the program at her school. She also noted that while she hired staff, their qualifications were vetted by the central office.
"They had to show that they were holding people accountable, but they weren't holding the right people accountable," Jennings said, referring to the law center attorneys.
"The key decisions about the autism program come from central office. No one ever asked about the program, never visited," Jennings said. "They would throw materials at the program, but they never put any positions of value that would have made the program successful."