TAYLOR COUNTY—Citing negligence and reckless infliction of emotional distress, a local family has filed a lawsuit after a child was bound to a chair while under the supervision of school personnel.
The Taylor County Board of Education is named as a defendant in the grievance, as well as four employees of Anna Jarvis Elementary School including Sarah Sigley, Elvira Summers, Jessica Austin and Heather Sinclair.
The suit, filed by Justin and Amanda Sharp in Taylor County in the Taylor County Circuit Court, alleges that a nine-year-old third grade student with special needs was “unlawfully, discriminatorily and abusively” restrained to a chair on September 29, 2021.
According to official court documents, the child tried to free himself for 22 minutes while his teacher ate lunch and his one-on-one aide sat at a table grading papers on the other side of the court room.
It wasn’t until another party, a physical therapist, entered the room that the youth was freed from the gait belt.
According to the suit, the child suffers from a Traumatic Brain Injury, Cortical Visual Impairment, Cerebral Palsy and Epilepsy, as well as muscular/skeletal, physical/orthopedic, speech and vision impairments, causing him to need support and close supervision.
Furthermore, the suit claims that the student regularly uses a custom stander and wheelchair to move around, that his vocabulary is limited to approximately 25 words and that he cannot speak in sentences.
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) was developed for the child in January 2021, and he was placed into a special needs classroom, that per West Virginia State Code §18-20-11, was required to be outfitted with video cameras capable of both audio and video captures.
However, the suit asserts that the camera used in the child’s particular classroom not only lacked audio recording capacity, it did not capture the whole room, leaving blind spots.
The footage from the date in question, recorded Sara Sigley, the child’s Severe and Profound Special Education Teacher, carrying him across the classroom and placing him in the chair. The video then showed aide Jessica Austin present with a gait belt.
The suit claims that Sigley and Austin then wrapped the belt tightly around the child’s midsection, restraining him and binding him to the chair. It further states that “there was no just cause” for the restriction, and that the IEP did not “provide for the use of any form of restraint on [the student] in any kind of situation or circumstance.”
The child, described in the court documents as scared and upset, struggled for approximately 22 minutes to free himself from the belt, by pulling, tugging on the restraint as well as rocking back and forth in his chair.
While the student attempted to free himself, Sigley remained seated at a nearby table eating her lunch, and the complaint revealed that she even left the child unattended in the room at one point in time during the incident.
The complaint asserts that video footage showed Sigley restraining another special needs student who tried to interact with her while she was eating her lunch.
The video also showed Elvira Summers, the child’s one-on-one special education classroom aide, entering the room and sitting at a table across the classroom, apparently working paperwork.
“Despite being his one-on-one aide, Summers did not attend to [the child] at any point while he was restrained and bound to the chair with the gait belt,” the complaint states.
Throughout the incident, while trying to free himself, the child slid his chair out of sight of the camera multiple times, and each time, he was repositioned by Austin.
The footage finally showed a physical therapist entering the room and gesturing at the child, appearing to question the restraint. He was then released from the gait belt, and remained seated in the chair, unattended.
The lawsuit alleges that the family believed Anna Jarvis Elementary School Principal Heather Sinclair was informed of the restraint of their son on the day the incident occurred, however they were not notified until five days later on October 4.
It was further asserted that the Sharps were provided with very little detail of the incident.
The West Virginia Department of Education Office of Federal Programs and Support launched an investigation and in a letter dated February 8, 2022, they provided 12 separate violations of state law, policy and procedure with regard to the events that unfolded on September 29.
The suit claims that the actions carried out by Sigley, Summers, Austin and Sinclair were “committed with a malicious purpose, in bad faith, and in a willful, wanting, reckless, and unjustifiable manner.”
It further states that the defendants, “demonstrated a disregard for the safety and well-being of [the child].”
The lawsuit alleges negligence, violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act and reckless infliction of emotional distress against all of the defendants, along with negligent training and supervision against the Taylor County Board of Education.
The Sharps have asked for a jury trial, and are seeking compensatory and punitive damages against Sibley Summers Austin and Sinclair, citing great physical, mental, psychological and emotional injuries and damages.
The family will also ask that pre-judgment and post-judgment interest and court costs be covered, as well.