A five-month-long probe by NBC 5 Investigates has caught the Plano Independent School District and a teacher breaking state rules.
The incident has cost a Plano ISD teacher and teacher’s aide their jobs and raises new questions about the use of so called “calm rooms,” special rooms used for students who need a time out.
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NBC 5 Investigates obtained a video that provides a rare glimpse into what can happen inside a calm room. It confirms something NBC 5 questioned months ago, whether some Texas teachers may be misusing those rooms and treating them more like jail cells than a quiet place for emotionally troubled kids to cool off.
In the video, you see a teacher forcing a child into a tiny padded room, holding the door shut and trapping the boy inside. As the adult closes the door the child yells, “No! No!” “Let me out now!” At one point the teacher knocks the student to the ground, attempting to remove the child’s shoes.
This wasn’t a psychiatric hospital or a juvenile jail. The incident happened at a Plano ISD elementary school.
The child begs to the teacher to, “Let (him) out” as the teacher responds with, “No.”
The teacher in the video was Plano ISD special education teacher Chris Hayes. And the child is Micah Watson, an 8-year-old with autism.
NBC 5 Investigates obtained the video from Plano ISD with the permission of Beth and Shane Watson, Micah’s parents.
“I wanted to throw up. I wanted to cry and throw up and scream. Somebody did something horrible to my child and I didn't know about it,” Beth Watson said, describing her reaction when she watched the video for the first time.
“They closed the door quickly and then put their bodies on the door,” Micah recalled.
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.
The Watsons suspected their son was mistreated in one of those rooms at Plano ISD’s Miller Elementary School after he came home with bruises in October 2012.
The Watsons reported the bruises at the time but were told they could not see surveillance video of the incident because another student was seen in parts of the video and that it would violate the other student’s privacy.
More than two years later, Micah’s parents still wondered what really happened to their son.
To find out, NBC 5 requested school records and discovered the elementary school saved the video but never reported the incident to the district’s security department. After NBC 5 Investigates started asking questions, along with the Watsons, the district launched an investigation in December 2014, more than two years after the incident occurred.
In a report detailing the school district’s internal investigation, investigators describe how the incident started early in the school day when Micah flipped off a light switch after trying to run out of the special needs classroom.
The teacher, Hayes, takes Micah to the so-called “calm room,” and is heard saying, “We’re done.”
After being put in the calm room, Micah becomes combative. He screams, he spits and he kicks the teacher.
The district's investigation found Micah’s behavior was certainly challenging, and at times uncooperative. But, the report said, “Most of the times when Hayes would place Micah in the quiet room, Micah was not, at that moment, acting in a physically aggressive manner.”
Many times, Hayes trapped Micah in the calm room holding the door closed and refusing to let him out. Texas law prohibits teachers from confining students in “timeouts” by locking or holding a door shut.
Over several hours the exchange between the teacher and student moves in and out of the calm room.
At one point the video shows Hayes egging Micah on. “Kick me. You’ve already done it. I don’t care,” Hayes can be heard saying to the child.
When Micah said he was going to kick, Hayes replied, “I don’t care. Go for it. Go for it.”
Micah kicks again but misses Hayes, who then mocks the child and said, “You missed.” Hayes then grabbed Micah’s leg.
The district’s investigation found, “When Micah became upset, distraught or agitated; Hayes often appeared to taunt, goad or mock him, rather than to try to sooth or redirect him to some activity.”
At one point Hayes pulls Micah’ shoes off and pulls both legs out from under him, knocking him to the floor of the calm room where he hit his head.
Micah said when he was forced into the room that he felt like the walls were closing in around him. His parents acknowledge his behavior was way out of line that day, but they expected better treatment from the district and a teacher trained to handle a child with special needs.
“Those things are completely uncalled for,” said Shane Watson, Micah’s father.
Plano Calm Rooms Violate State Laws
Colleen Elbe, an attorney with the nonprofit Disability Rights Texas, which helps families of special needs children, said teachers aren’t allowed to lean on closed doors or to hold them shut.
“The law specifically states that nobody can stand in the doorway — hold the door shut — and it cannot lock,” Elbe said.
Elbe points out that by Texas state law teachers may not use force to put students in "time outs" and they can only restrain students if they're an imminent threat.
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When NBC 5 Investigates first questioned Plano ISD last fall, the district said "students are not placed in these rooms … students may access the rooms when they need a quiet calm environment" and that the “door is not held shut from the outside.”
Plano ISD also said all of the rooms were larger than 50 square feet, but that wasn’t true.
District records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates now show the room Micah was held in was just 36 square feet.
Records show as of December, Plano had at 100 calm rooms district wide. At least 15 were smaller than the required 50 square feet.
NBC 5 Investigates tried to ask Plano ISD Interim Superintendent Steve Fortenberry if the district is still using those rooms, but for months the district has declined multiple requests for an interview on-camera. Last week, NBC 5 Investigates approached Fortenberry on-camera as he left district headquarters, but he refused to answer questions.
Just days later, Plano ISD sent a statement saying it will make changes.
- During the summer break, the doors on spaces used as calm rooms will be removed.
- The district will assure that all rooms used as timeout spaces or calm rooms are a minimum of 50 square feet.
- Training protocols will be reviewed and additional intervention strategies will be considered as appropriate.
As for the 2012 incident, the district said it immediately began an internal investigation when central office administrators first learned of it in 2014.
“The awareness that any student in Plano ISD was inappropriately treated by a trusted caregiver is disheartening. It is the district’s expectation that all employees regard each student with the utmost respect and that the well-being of students is a top priority,” the Plano ISD statement said.
Special Education Teacher No Longer Employed by Plano ISD
As a result of the investigation the district said two faculty members, connected to the incident, are no longer employed by Plano ISD. Records and video show, in addition to Hayes, a teacher’s aide witnessed portions of the incident.
After the district’s investigation, Hayes gave a statement to the district saying, "It was never my intention to harm anyone physically or emotionally. I let my frustrations boil over into my professionalism, as well as my training by PISD … I am a good person who made a terrible mistake. For that I am truly sorry."
Hayes hired an attorney who initially agreed to an interview with NBC 5 Investigates, but the attorney canceled the interview Friday and asked to reschedule. His lawyer was then injured in a car accident over the weekend and has been unable to respond. NBC 5 Investigates reached out to again to Hayes for comment, but he hasn’t responded.
Plano ISD said it referred the case to the state agency that investigates child abuse but the agency did not take action against anyone involved.
Calm Rooms Used Unnecessarily, Expert Says
Experts who have studied calm rooms tell NBC 5 Investigates teachers often force challenging and combative kids into them because school districts don't give teachers other options.
“The problem is that if you have these rooms, people use them, understandably, and the times when they are really necessary are few and far between,” said Dr. Stuart Ablon, director of Think:Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Ablon trains teachers across the country to recognize warning signs and to de-escalate situations before things get out of control.
“The good news is there are alternatives, proven alternatives that make rooms like this fairly obsolete,” said Ablon.
At Plano ISD questions remain about why the district allowed this teacher to work for more than two years after this incident without an investigation and why the district has been putting children into rooms smaller than the state allows.
The Watson’s recently hired an attorney to explore legal action against Plano ISD. The family now home schools Micah and he no longer attends public school.
Last year, NBC 5 Investigates requested records from more than 35 other school districts in North Texas and found at least five districts, including Plano, using similar rooms.
Currently, Texas law does not even require schools to notify parents if their child is put in a calm room.
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.