May 18, 2009 -- The suicide of a 15 year-old resident at a Texas school for the mentally disabled is the latest incident to add to the growing concern over how the Texas state schools are run. The incident, which is now under investigation, comes on the heels of a report last week on ABC News in which cell phone video showed a 'fight club' allegedly run by employees of another Texas school who forced mentally disabled residents to brawl.
The female resident was found hanging in her room last week by staff at the San Angelo State school in Carlsbad, TX. According to State officials, staff members and on-site medical personnel attempted to resuscitate the resident. A report obtained from the Tom Green County Sheriff's office indicates local paramedics arrived and were able to get a heart rhythm after performing CPR. The patient was transported to Shannon Medical Center where she was pronounced dead and the manner of death later confirmed by the autopsy report as "suicide".
"We are investigating the matter and will interview employees who were on duty at the time to find out what they observed and witnessed," said Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. "We will also determine if there was any neglect on behalf of the staff," he added.
Crimmins said the agency will also look at the girl's records to determine why she was at the school, her medical condition and if she was supposed to have additional supervision.
The young woman's suicide is the only reported death of a resident at the school.
"Our agency and the staff at San Angelo school are deeply saddened by the sudden death of one our residents," said Cecilia Fedorov, press officer for the Texas Department of Aging and Disabilities.
The Texas Department of Aging and Disabilities Services (DADS) is charged with overseeing Texas' 14, state schools; including the discovered by police where night shift employees are accused of forcing the mentally disabled to take part in a brutal "fight club" sessions that were videotaped on their cell phones.
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The six former employees were indicted earlier this month; five were charged with causing injury to a disabled person and the sixth was charged with failing to intervene.
Texas State Schools have received numerous complaints over the years. The concerns have heightened with the recent investigation into the "fight clubs" and now the death at the San Angelo State School.
The San Angelo State School is a state-funded residential facility that cares for nearly 300 mentally ill or mentally challenged individuals. According to the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) the school has had 203 confirmed cases of neglect or physical abuse between 2006 and 2009. In fiscal year 2008 alone, San Angelo State School had 844 completed investigations. Within the past month, there have been 69 completed investigations.
The staggering number of confirmed abuse and neglect cases at the San Angelo school and throughout the Texas State School system has raised concerns about the effectiveness and safety of the institutions.
"The system is broken," said Beth Mitchell, Senior Managing Attorney of Advocacy Inc., an organization that works to protect the rights of Texans with disabilities. "It's very sad that you have a state that is repeatedly told there are problems with the system, yet they don't take actions to fix it."
Mitchell believes staffing issues are a large factor in why the schools are not succeeding.
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"It goes back to untrained, underpaid and underqualified staff that are charged with caring for Texas' most vulnerable individuals," said Mitchell. "Without the right components in place, the schools become a haven for abuse and neglect."
"We strongly disagree with the broad statements made by Advocacy, Inc.," said Federov at the Texas Department of Aging and Disability. "Any instance of abuse or neglect of a state school resident is absolutely inexcusable, and we completely reject the claim that no changes or improvements have been made in our state schools in recent years. For example, we have extremely strict reporting policies, which require every possible instance of abuse, neglect or exploitation at state schools be reported to and investigated by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), the agency charged with investigating all such allegations."
Federov also said that in 2007 the schools implemented a zero-tolerance policy for any employee who has a confirmation of abuse or neglect which results in any measure of physical harm to a state school resident. "An employee with such a confirmation from DFPS is fired." She also added that funding for state schools has been increased in each of the past two legislative sessions.
"Actions such as those of the former employees of the Corpus Christi State School are disgusting, unconscionable and inexcusable. In accordance with our zero tolerance policy, those employees were fired less than a week after we learned of the cell phone recordings," said Federov.
The investigation into the suicide at the San Angelo State School is on-going. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services have 14 days to file a report on the case which is classified as high priority because a death occurred. Cases reviewed by the DFPS are designated using priority levels one through four with one being "high" or the most serious.