Parents Consider Legal Action After Autistic Girl, 8, Arrested at School

Parents say daughter only got violent after teachers physically restrained her.

January 13, 2009, 6:51 PM

Jan. 14, 2008— -- The mother of an 8-year-old autistic girl who was arrested after a scuffle with her teachers said it was horrifying to watch her daughter be led away in handcuffs from her northern Idaho elementary school.

Police in Bonner County, Idaho, charged the girl, Evelyn Towry, with battery after the arrest Friday at Kootenai Elementary School.

Even though prosecutors dismissed the case Tuesday, the family is considering legal action against the school. They say their daughter was physically restrained to the point of causing bruises and is now tormented by memories of the incident.

Spring Towry said she got to the school Friday just in time to see 54-pound Evelyn -- who was diagnosed at age 5 with Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism -- being walked to a police car with two officers at her side.

"She started screaming 'Mommy, I don't want to go! What are batteries? What are batteries?'" Towry said. "She didn't even know what she was arrested for."

Towry, who lives in Ponderay, said Evelyn told her that she had been refused entry into a school Christmas party that had been delayed until after the holidays because of a string of snow days, because she refused to take off her beloved "cow costume" -- a hoodie with cow ears and a tail.

Towry said Evelyn, who loves Spongebob Squarepants, told her she was put in a separate classroom away from the party, but when she tried to leave, the teachers told her to stay put. Evelyn did not listen, Towry said, and the adults physically restrained her.

"She reacted in a violent way to the physical restraint," Towry said.

Towry said her daughter demonstrated for her how she was held down by her arms and legs. And Towry videotaped the thumb-sized bruises she says were left on Evelyn's legs from the incident.

"She said 'I was very scared,'" Towry said. "She told me she was being hurt."

Dick Cvitanich, superintendent of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, which includes the school where Evelyn was a student, said the school called police because "there was escalating behavior that resulted in what we perceived to be an assault on staff."

At a hearing on the case Tuesday, the prosecutor "said that he didin't think at this time it would be beneficial to pursue it becauase of her age and, of course, her condition," Towry said.

Evelyn was at court for the hearing, but "she didn't exactly know what was going on," Towry said.

Cvitanich said Evelyn's outburst Friday was the culmination of a series of incidents "that demanded staff intervention."

"It's definitely not typical," he said of the decision to call police on a child as young as Evelyn, "and not something we particularly want to do or like to do."

Inappropriate Reaction From School Officials?

The school's response to Evelyn's outburst and the string of events that led to it were completely inappropriate, says Dr. Pauline Filipek, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, and pediatric nurse practitioner Teri Book, who share a practice specializing in pediatric neurology.

Book, the mother of a 17-year-old daughter with Asperger's, said children with high-functioning autism create the illusion that they are capable of communicating in the same way as children who do not have developmental disabilities.

In reality, Book said, they may have an animalistic "fight or flight" mentality when it comes to confrontation. Many have "tactile defensiveness," meaning they are hyper-sensitive to any type of unwanted physical contact.

Filipek said similar incidents with autistic children are not uncommon, noting that one of her patients was recently ejected from his synagogue for attacking other children.

But charging Evelyn with battery, she said, implied that she intended to hurt her teachers when Evelyn's violent response to being restrained was a "gut-level" reaction.

"It really concerns me, to be perfectly blunt, that the school does not understand autism any better than that," Filipek said.

Cvitanich said Kootenai Elementary School includes a mix of mainstream and special education classes for children with disabilities. Children with severe disabilities, he said, are taught in a specialized program that has a smaller student-teacher ratio.

"They're mainstreamed as much as possible," he said.

Towry said her daughter didn't even meet the minimum age requirement of 10 to be booked at the county juvenile detention center.

Bonner County Police Lt. Ror Lakewold said the police report indicated the child -- who he declined to name because of her age -- "hit, kicked and spit on teachers."

Lakewold said there was also a complaint that the child grabbed a teacher in a "sexually sensitive place," not in a sexual way, but to cause pain.

Towry said that complaint stemmed from Evelyn pinching her teacher's breast, but she believes Evelyn wasn't aiming for any spot in particular. She was just fighting to be let loose.

"Teachers and the principal wished to pursue charges because they felt there were ongoing problems and this was the only way to resolve it," Lakewold said.

But Towry said her daughter thinks she got into so much trouble simply because she didn't want to take off her cow costume.

When asked what she likes best about school, Evelyn responded quickly and emphatically.

"Nothing," she said. "I don't like school."

And Towry said Evelyn won't be going back to Kootenai Elementary School, where she has been suspended for between two and 10 days.

"I fear for her safety and mental well-being," she said.

They haven't decided yet if Evelyn's 6-year-old sister, who does not have a developmental disability, will remain there or be transferred along with Evelyn.

Nothing formal has been filed yet, but she and her husband are considering legal action, Towry said.

"I would like them to learn a lesson that they should not treat children with disabilities in this manner," she said.

There's a lot of children with autism in the world now, she pointed out, and school officials need to learn how to properly discipline them.

Raising a Child With Asperger's

Towry said there was no indication there was anything wrong with Evelyn, the third of her four children, when she was a baby.

"All she really wanted from me as a baby was to nurse," Towry said, adding that Evelyn spoke early, walked early and hit all of her other developmental goals either on time or ahead of schedule.

Towry said she and her husband started getting calls about Evelyn's behavior when she was in kindergarten, before they moved to Ponderay. School officials told them the little girl would act out by making animal noises or stomping her feet.

"I guess I probably knew there was something wrong with her," Towry said. "When you're a parent it's difficult to think there's anything wrong with your child."

But it wasn't until they moved to Ponderay and put Evelyn into kindergarten at Kootenai that they got a diagnosis. Towry said she was called to the school on Evelyn's first day when her teacher said the girl began acting out in class, again making animal noises among other behaviors.

When the Towrys took the teacher's recommendation and had their daughter tested, they were shocked by the diagnosis.

"It scared me," Towry said. "I had no idea what Asperger's Syndrome was."

In Towry's mind at the time, autistic children drooled, were disconnected, didn't talk, didn't communicate. And none of that was Evelyn.

Towry said Evelyn isn't a perfect child at home. She sometimes gets into shoving matches or the like with her younger sister over sibling rivalry-type issues, but Towry said those situations are easily diffused with words and have never risen to the level of what Evelyn and police say occurred Friday at Kootenai Elementary School.

"She was not a bad kid," Towry said.

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