LaPorte schools settle lawsuit alleging autistic child was detained


A LaPorte couple who accused teachers of the LaPorte community school district of immobilizing their daughter, who is autistic, with a wooden structure in 2017, struck a deal with the district earlier this week.

In their lawsuit, Heather and William Castle said staff at Kingsford Heights Elementary School placed wooden partitions, covered with felt-like material, around their daughter Kennedi’s desk to prevent it to get up during class.

The case was due to go to trial on Monday after four years of litigation, however, the two sides agreed to a settlement and requested that the case be closed with the panel of jurors already in the courthouse.

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“We are very happy with the settlement,” said Heather Castle. “Of course, the settlement is for Kennedi. It is something that no family or child should have to experience; it shouldn’t be like that.

Corbin Fowler, an attorney representing the Castles, declined to provide the Tribune with the terms of the settlement, saying the deal prevented it from disclosing the information.

Fowler said the settlement was reached at the last minute because his clients had to “prove to them that we had a good deal.”

“I think the closer we got to the trial, the more they realized that they were in fact wrong and that a jury was likely to agree with us,” Fowler said, noting that the rules don’t oblige not LaPorte community schools to admit wrongdoing.

The Castles receive a payment from the district which will be used to pay for “the services Kennedi needs to move forward,” said Heather Castle.

The settlement agreement does not say the district will make specific policy changes regarding education for students with disabilities, but Kennedi’s family is hopeful the case will result in changes.

Following:Parents say their autistic child was held up with wooden partitions at LaPorte school

“We hope this case will help other children. They learned what not to do, ”said Heather Castle.

A spokesperson for the LaPorte County School District responded to multiple requests for comment on the settlement. Lawyers representing the district in the case also did not respond to requests for an interview.

‘Restraint chair’

The lawsuit, filed in 2018, alleged that Kennedi’s parents noticed that she had started having nightmares and hated wearing a seat belt or participating in structured activities, according to the lawsuit. They also noticed a few small abrasions around its midsection.

This photo shows the signs that were said to have been used to restrain their 7-year-old daughter, who has autism, to her desk at school.  Photo provided.

Kennedi was 7 at the time and cannot communicate his thoughts effectively due to his disability, according to the lawsuit.

A week after Kennedi’s change in behavior, William Castle escaped the principal and went to Kennedi’s classroom. When he arrived he found a desk with Kennedi’s name on it. Under the seat was a raised wooden platform, and the top of the desk had planks forming partitions on two sides.

William Castle also saw a belt on the desk, presumably used to tie Kennedi to the chair to restrict his movement, according to the complaint.

The Castles’ complaint says teachers working with Kennedi confined the girl to the “restraint chair” for long periods of more than five days.

Indiana law allows school personnel to restrict a child’s movement only as a last resort in response to “an immediate risk of injury,” or if the child’s parents have previously agreed to such measures.

Schools should only restrain a child for a short period of time, in accordance with state guidelines, and restraint should not be used routinely to resolve behavioral issues, such as disrespectful students or leaving their seats.

State code also requires schools to notify parents when restraint is used on their child.

After William Castle found out about the office, he and his wife met school administrators and Kennedi’s teachers who apologized for not letting the parents know. However, they denied harming Kennedi, claiming the teacher acted in Kennedi’s best interests, the Castles previously told the Tribune.

The Castles have since moved to Valparaiso and currently teach at Kennedi House, which is now 11 years old.

Lawmakers and educators across the country have increasingly emphasized the use of restraint and seclusion. In 2012, students were subjected to physical restraint or isolation at least 267,000 times across the country, according to federal data reviewed by ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization. These cases included tactics such as handcuffs, duct tape and isolation rooms.

In 2013, the Indiana General Assembly created the Commission on Seclusion and Restraint in Schools, who wrote the model policies for local schools. Lawmakers have demanded that school corporations create their own policies to follow state guidelines, and to track and report to the state their annual uses of restraint and seclusion.

During the 2016-2017 school year, LaPorte Community Schools reported six uses of restraint and no use of seclusion, according to state data.

Email Marek Mazurek at Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek