NBC 5 Investigates has learned The Texas Education Agency is reviewing a 2012 recorded incident at a Plano elementary school where an 8-year-old autistic student was forcibly held in a so-called “calm room.”
In the video, you see a teacher trapping the boy, Micah, in a tiny closet-like room used for discipline.
NBC 5 Investigates obtained the video from the Plano Independent School District, with the permission of the Micah’s parents Beth and Shane Watson.
Lawmakers in Austin are considering a bill that would require cameras in more special education classrooms and Micah Watson’s Mom, Beth Watson went to the state capitol to support that law.
“Micah is a high functioning verbal child who has autism,” Beth Watson testified in front of the Senate committee on education. “He was severely mistreated by his teacher in the classroom closet that served as the calm room.”
Micah’s mother described for legislators what the video captured that day, a teacher forcing Micah into a small room as a punishment for acting out and Micah kicking at the teacher. The teacher can be seen pulling off Micah’s shoes, pulling his legs out from under him and knocking him to the floor where he hits his head.
Many times the teacher can be seen holding the door shut, trapping Micah inside. Texas law prohibits teachers from blocking the door or using force to put kids in time out.
Over several hours the exchange between the teacher and student moves in and out of the calm room.
At one point the video shows the teacher calling Micah a baby one of many times investigators found he mocked the child during the incident.
“Months ago Micah decided he wanted to speak up about that calm room after seeing a report on NBC about those rooms,” Beth told the committee.
Micah’s parents contacted NBC 5 Investigates in November 2014 after we aired a special report that month that revealed at least five DFW area school districts have small padded closets used to hold disruptive students.
“They closed the door quickly and then put their bodies on the door,” Micah recalled.
Through an open records request, NBC 5 Investigates learned the Plano Independent School District still had video from the 2012 incident, but did start investigating until NBC 5 started asking questions in 2014.
“Luckily there were cameras that picked up what happened,” said Sen. Eddie Lucio, who added the video proves the state needs to mandate cameras in special education classrooms. “We were lucky that the Watson child could speak and could tell what had happened and that we had a video to back it up. In many cases that’s not the case.”
Lucio is working to pass SB 507 this legislative session. He’s also sponsoring legislation that would require schools to notify parents if their child is put in a time-out room.
Some advocates said those rooms should be eliminated because they’re prone to abuse.
“Every family I have talked to that has had a child in a calming room, or blue room, or whatever you want to call it, they have held the door shut,” said Stacy Ford, Coalition of Human Rights Policy Advocates.
NBC 5 Investigates reporting on the issue ignited a debate on social media.
One person wrote, “Unless you have are in the classroom, you have no idea what these poor kids can do to adults.”
Another wrote, “When a student becomes a danger to themselves or others … sometimes a padded room is the only option.”
But the Texas group which represents special education administrators disagrees and said calm room with doors should that seclude a child should not exist.
Instead Janna Lilly, Director of Governmental Relations for the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education, said schools need to give teachers more training to deescalate situations and should use special teams to restrain students who pose a danger, without isolating them in tiny rooms.
“Our job is to appropriately educate them into proper behavior. Consequences as a last resort,” said Lilly.
Back in Plano, NBC 5 Investigates reporting has prompted the Texas Education Agency to look into Plano's the use of those rooms.
In a statement, a spokeswoman from the agency said, "Because the Texas Education Agency is reviewing the use of the "calm room," we are unable to comment on the situation at this time."
Meanwhile, the Plano ISD said it will remove the doors from its calm rooms this summer.
After an internal investigation, the Plano ISD said the teacher is no longer employed by the district. They called the incident "disheartening" and said it was "an anomaly."
The teacher apologized to investigators, saying he never intended to hurt anyone and that his emotions simply boiled over.
Now that video may contribute to changes statewide.
“I would want everyone in this state to see it -- to see how critical an issue this is and that we need to address,” said Lucio.
“Because that video is there, we are now able to seek justice for Micah and make a difference in other children's lives by making sure that these things cannot happen to other children,” said Beth Watson, choking up.
The legislation proposed by Lucio passed the Senate and a similar bill is pending in the House.
The original bill only covered some special education rooms, but legislators are now working to broaden that in a compromise measure.
If you suspect your child was mistreated in a calm room or similar type room, we want to hear from you so we can look into the case just like we did in Plano. Please email NBC 5 Investigates Producer Eva Parks. All emails will be kept confidential.