Autistic boy locked naked in Sherwood Park school isolation room, lawsuit alleges

Autistic boy locked naked in Sherwood Park school isolation room, lawsuit alleges

A Sherwood Park couple claim their 12-year-old autistic son was stripped naked and locked in a school isolation room, where he was later found covered in his own feces.

They are suing the province and other defendants they say violated the boy's charter rights.

The parents' allegations are disputed in a statement of defence.

The case is being highlighted by Inclusion Alberta, a non-profit group that advocates on behalf of children and adults with developmental disabilities, and their families. The group plans to launch an online survey Friday to learn about the use of seclusion and physical restraint of students with disabilities in Alberta schools.

The Sherwood Park parents allege their non-verbal son, who has autism spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and a severe gastrointestinal illness, was removed from his classroom at Clover Bar Junior High School in Sherwood Park on Sept. 23, 2015.

The boy was forced to strip off all his clothes, the parents say in their lawsuit, then was locked in an isolation room at the back of an adjacent empty classroom. The room had paper taped over the window and was locked from the outside.

The boy's teacher, who is also named in the lawsuit, later emailed the parents a photograph of the 12-year-old that showed him naked and covered in feces, the lawsuit alleges.

When the father arrived at the school about 45 minutes after receiving the email, he found the classroom empty. When the father took the paper off the isolation-room window, he saw his son and heard him whimpering.

'Immediate and immense distress'

The father's "immediate and immense distress and finding [his son] in this condition; naked, isolated, alone, unobserved, unsupervised, whimpering, defeated, and filthy, was indescribable," the parents say in a statement of claim filed July 6, 2017 in Edmonton Court of Queen's Bench.

But in a statement of defence filed in December 2017 on behalf of all the defendants except the Alberta government, the allegations are denied.

When the boy returned to school for his second year in September 2015 he was "more agitated, unpredictable and more prone to violent behaviour" than he had been the previous school year, the statement of defence says.

His behaviour included "physical aggression towards staff members, including biting, scratching, pulling hair and hitting them," the statement of defence says.

The boy was a Grade 8 student in the school's practical learning and community education program. The program caters to children with "moderate cognitive disabilities," according to the school's website.

The boy had an individualized program plan designed to address his special needs. The plan made it clear that the boy, at times, "may require non-violent crisis intervention" in order for him to return to a "manageable state," the lawsuit says.

Neither the teacher nor any of the other defendants named in the lawsuit had the parents' consent to use the isolation room, the lawsuit alleges, and the boy's specific plan "made no reference to its use as an intervention strategy to address [the boy's] special needs," according to the lawsuit.

Staff asked boy to strip, lawsuit says

"School staff asked [the boy] to and he willingly undressed prior to being locked alone and completely naked in the isolation room," the lawsuit says.

But the statement of defence says the parents were aware their son had been in the time-out room at least once before Sept. 23, 2015.

On that day, according to the statement of defence, the boy's behavioural issues "escalated and became unmanageable.

His parents knew, or ought to have known, about their son's "escalating propensity for violent behaviour in September 2015 and the safety risk to other students and school staff."

The defendants deny that the boy was unsupervised while in the isolation room and say only two-thirds of the window was covered with paper. The statement of defence also denies that the defendants violated the boy's charter rights.

The lawsuit names the boy's teacher, the principal and assistant principal, the student support services consultant, the director of inclusive learning, the superintendent and associate superintendent, the board of trustees of Elk Island Public Schools Regional Division No. 14 and the minister of education.

The parents seek $250,000 in damages for injuries to their son's emotional and psychological well-being and $25,000 in damages for injuries to his physical well-being.

The lawsuit also seeks a declaration that the defendants breached the boy's charter rights.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven in court.

"The allegations made have yet to be tested in court, where we will strongly defend the actions of our staff," Elk Island Public Schools spokesperson Laura McNabb said Thursday in an emailed statement.

"As the case is before the courts, we cannot comment further on the matter."

A spokesperson for Education Minister David Eggen said the province has not filed a statement of defence.

The government has "made an application to strike," meaning the province does not believe it should be named as a defendant in the case, said press secretary Lindsay Harvey.