April 15, 2008
Complaints filed against district, Huntington Beach after Ocean View School District teachers used restraint technique to hold boy down.
By ANNIE BURRIS
The Orange County Register
HUNTINGTON BEACH – A 7-year-old boy with autism and severe disabilities was left with a broken nose, bruises and scratches after two Ocean View School District teachers used a controversial restraining technique to calm him down, officials said.
Former Lake View Elementary School teacher Gina Messig and assistant teacher Mai Vo used "prone restraint" to control a special education student when he started throwing objects in the classroom and hitting teachers, according a school report of the Sept. 6 incident.
The two teachers held the child's leg and arm while the student was face down on the floor, the school report said. Prone restraint – which means the person is held face down – is rarely used and is usually the last resort to control a child, experts say.
The boy's father, Robert Velasquez, filed claims – a precursor to a lawsuit – against the Ocean View district and the city of Huntington Beach on Jan. 24, asking for a minimum of $505,000 in damages in each of the two claims. The claims allege that the district failed to supervise, educate, and provide adequate safeguards against child abuse and battery.
The city and district have rejected the claims. District officials, the city and Messig said they would not comment on the claims. Vo could not be reached for comment.
The Orange County Register is not naming the child in the story because he is a juvenile and possible victim.
The claims allege that Messig and Vo caused emotional and physical injuries when they used the technique to restrain the boy.
"Our whole position is what occurred to (the child) is aberrant and unnecessary restraint," said Alexander Gelman, attorney for the family. Velasquez declined to discuss the incident.
The use of prone restraint on children has been the subject of national and state attention.
A bill proposed by state Senator Sheila Kuehl from Los Angeles and Ventura counties that limits physical restraint techniques is set to go before a committee Wednesday. The bill would require teachers to "avoid the deliberate use of prone restraint techniques whenever possible.''
Kuehl proposed the bill after Protection and Advocacy, Inc., a nonprofit agency that promotes the rights of people with disabilities, published a yearlong study on restraints. The report cautions schools "about the significant risk of death associated with certain physical restraint positions, in particular prone containment."
The use of prone restraint can be prevented by identifying what motivates the behavior and addressing the behavior early on, said Leslie Morrison, director of the group's investigation's department.
Marian Williams, a professor at USC who studies developmental disabilities, said it takes specific training to use prone restraint.
"It can be very dangerous if it is not used appropriately," she said. "There are very specific parameters that have to be followed."
Sept. 6, in the classroom
Officials with the Orange County Department of Education say the use of prone restraint depends on the situation and must be specified in a plan already agreed to by the parents and teachers.
The teachers were allowed to use "reasonable restraint" according to documents signed by Velasquez, Gelman said.
On the morning of Sept. 6 the boy – who cannot talk because of his autism — had been running in his special education classroom, trying to escape out the door and hitting the teachers and students before he was restrained, Messig wrote in a report about the incident.
He began to throw folders, toys and chairs, and attempted to knock over a wheelchair, the report said. Then he grabbed a girl by the hair and pulled her to the ground, according to the report.
The teachers tried to calm the boy and eventually dismissed the rest of the children from the classroom to play outside, the report said.
"Teacher quickly instructed aide in BASIC self-defense technique of two person prone containment," Messig's report said.
According to state law, prone containment can only be used by trained personnel, and it is unclear if the teachers were trained before restraining the child.
J. Michael Declues, attorney for the school district, said all Ocean View School District special education teachers have appropriate training "for all issues pertaining to their students, including prone restraint.''
The boy initially resisted, but after 15 seconds he placed his head on the floor. Two minutes later the boy calmed down and went to recess, the school report said.
The teachers' initial reactions to the child's behaviors – using calm voices and letting him know he could go to the playground – were appropriate, said Dennis Roberson, chief of special education services for the county.
"(Prone restraint) is something we don't recommend or encourage," he said. "We would focus on more positive approaches, unless the behavior escalated to where he was a danger to himself or others."
Robert Velasquez was told the next day, Sept. 7, that the teachers had used prone restraint. Whenever this type of restraint is used, the parents must be notified within one school day, state law said.
The father did not know the extent of the injuries on Sept. 6 because the boy was unable to tell him, Gelman said.
Velasquez began to notice the child's injuries three days later, when the boy's face, chest and stomach had bruises and swelling, Gelman said.
Dr. Shawki Zurabi, a physician at Orange Coast Memorial Hospital who examined the boy, said it is not unusual for bruising to develop over several days and that the injuries were consistent with someone who had struggled, according to the police report.
No criminal charges
Messig was put on leave from the school after the incident and has since left the district, officials said.
The Orange County District Attorney's office announced March 21 that they would not file criminal charges against Messig, after a review of a case that had been submitted to them by the Huntington Beach police, spokeswoman Farrah Emami said. There was insufficient evidence to prove she had committed a crime, Emami said.
The review was sparked by information provided by the Huntington Beach Police Department about Messig and the incident. No review of Vo was requsted, she said.
Velasquez said he did not want to talk about the claim.
"There was a good reason, though," he said about filing the claim.
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