Sept. 18, 2008 -- A disability rights group in North Carolina is investigating claims that several autistic students at a Raleigh middle school were restrained with handcuffs and encouraged to wrestle one another, according to legal documents obtained by ABCNews.com.
Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against the Wake County Board of Education and Robert Sturey, the senior director of special education services.
The group says both have refused to hand over the names of the families who have children in the class at Carroll Middle School in Raleigh, N.C., where the alleged abuse occurred.
DRNC is also suing for the right to enter the classroom in question and monitor student-teacher interactions during school hours -- a request that it says has been rebuffed by school officials.
According to the complaint, one parent of a child attending the school reported that her son had allegedly been handcuffed around his ankles to prevent him from kicking during a temper tantrum, said John Rittelmeyer, a lawyer who represents the DRNC, and another parent claimed his son had bruised arms from teachers grabbing him.
One parent said the school had a "WWF room" -- a reference to the former World Wrestling Federation -- in which students were encouraged to wrestle with one another, according to the claim.
"Specifically, these allegations include claims that the wrestling was done with the classroom teacher's knowledge and that the classroom teaching assistants were directly involved in wrestling with the students," the complaint states.
Mom Alleges Son With Autism was Traumitized
Betsy Johnson, whose son Stone was 12 when he attended Carroll Middle School, told ABC News that she believes her son was so traumatized by what he saw teachers do to his classmates that his autism became more pronounced.
"My son came home one day and told me about a child being wrestled to the floor by a teacher," said Johnson, who has since moved out of Wake County and enrolled her son in a different public school. "That really scared my son because the child was squirming and couldn't communicate verbally."
Ann Majestic, the lawyer representing the Wake County public school system, declined to comment on the specific allegations.
"I can't speak about individual student situations," said Majestic, adding that no school employees have been suspended since the alleged incidents were first reported in late August.
The investigation is being hindered, according to the complaint, by the school board's refusal to provide the DRNC with the names of the parents of children who were in the classroom where the alleged incidents occurred.
"We want the names and contact information for all the children in the class," said Rittelmeyer. "We would like to obtain releases so we can view the educational records for all the children in the class." He said about eight children are in the special needs class.
According to a spokesman from the Wake County public school system, there are 1,481 students with autism in the school district; 13 of which attend Carroll.
The county school board is refusing to give the student information to DRNC, citing portions of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that it says prevents it from releasing student and personnel information.
"[DRNC] is operating under a statute that gives them some investigation authority and we're acting under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student records," said Majestic.
North Carolina Rights Group Wants Access to Class for Children with Autism
DRNC's Rittelmeyer said that in addition to the names of the students, the agency also wants access to the classroom during school hours so that the students and staff can be questioned, but this request was also denied by the school.
But Majestic said that the school will allow DRNC to speak with the teachers and visit the classrooms -- but only after school hours, a stipulation Rittelmeyer says would be "totally useless."
"They never said to us that they didn't think [going into the facility during non-school hours] was insufficient, they just filed their lawsuit," said Majestic.
Rittelmeyer believes that part of the reason the school board will not give the requested information is because DRNC is a fairly new agency -- it was instituted by the federal government 15 months ago under a law that exempts such agencies when it comes to privacy laws.
Majestic said that the schools simply want to be certain that they are in compliance with the law.
The likelihood of embarrassment should the alleged abuse be proved, said Rittelmeyer, is another reason he believes the school board is not cooperating.
"I'm not sure they're hiding something -- I think we probably know most of the events that are going on in that classroom -- but to confirm them would be an embarrassment to the school system," said Rittelmeyer.
As for Johnson, she says she has no doubt that the stories Stone told her about his class at Carroll are true.
"I hope this lawsuit makes this stop," said Johnson. "We are hurting children first of all and a lot of them can't even advocate for themselves or sometimes even speak for themselves."