Autistic child strapped to toilet; parents file suit

NORWALK The parents of an autistic child are suing his former special education teacher and her empl
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

NORWALK

The parents of an autistic child are suing his former special education teacher and her employer after the boy was strapped to a toilet and left in a darkened bathroom.

Jason and Heide Fields, both of Norwalk, filed a lawsuit claiming their son "suffered great pain of body and mind" as a direct result of the negligence of his teacher, Marsha Kowalski.

They are seeking more than $2 million in damages from Kowalski and Erie-Huron-Ottawa Educational Service Center, now called North Point Educational Service Center.

Kowalski, a special education specialist with more than 20 years of experience, was the boy's teacher during the 2003-04 school year at the Assembly of God Church in Norwalk. The then 9-year-old boy had troubles with potty training and still wore diapers. His parents expressed an interest in seeing his bathroom behavior progress, court records show.

After several months of working with the boy, he would occasionally have a bowel movement in his underwear, Kowalski said. When that happened in October 2003, an aide took the boy into the bathroom and became upset when he smeared excrement on the walls. The aide left the room, and Kowalski took over.

Kowalski, in a sworn affidavit, said she cleaned the boy up and put him on the toilet to finish his bowel movement.

He was still "worked up" and knocking around the specialized toilet seat for people with disabilities, court records show.

Using a Velcro strap, Kowalski strapped the boy to the toilet seat and calmed him down with soothing words. The straps were supposed to be used to secure the toilet seat to the stall wall, court records show.

The strap was for the child's own safety, said Kowalski's attorney, Daniel Mason, who said the boy had a problem with aggression.

"The straps are attached to the toilet for a reason. They are designed to be there," Mason said.

Kowalski said she turned out the bathroom lights to help calm him further. A little light still poured into the bathroom by way of the door.

Kowalski left the boy in the bathroom, but estimates only 2-3 minutes passed before she checked on him again. She checked on him several more times, and the entire incident did not last more than 20 minutes, her affidavit said.

By the end of the school year, the boy learned to listen to a communication device that reminded him every hour to use the restroom, and he became completely independent in the restroom at school, Kowalski said in her affidavit.

But the boy's parents filed a civil suit in June 2006, claiming misconduct.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the judge to rule whether there was any genuine issue of material fact that required a trial. The plaintiffs then voluntarily dismissed the case in July 2007. On Monday, one year later, they re-filed.

The suit contends the Erie-Huron-Ottawa Educational Service Center was negligent in hiring and training Kowalski and should have provided a better environment for the boy.

The family is seeking more than $1 million in damages each from both Kowalski and the agency.

Linell Weinberg, executive director of the Autism Society of Northwest Ohio, said while turning off the lights can sometimes benefit autistic children with sensory problems, restraining children seldom proves to their benefit.

"Strapping someone in is usually considered a restraint, and that's not something we try to do," she said. "Most of individuals with autism have troubles with communication issues, and if it's restrictive, it's potentially dangerous and there have been cases where individuals either were injured or died from restraints. It's just not a humane practice. We would want to use more positive kind of behavioral supports to help people."

But Mason maintains his clients did nothing wrong.

"A special education teacher was doing her best to deal with a special education student who was upset, and she acted professionally," he said.

Heide Fields and her attorney, Gregory Shell, did not return calls for comment.