A Scottsdale family is suing Scottsdale Unified School District, alleging that its failure to properly train special education teachers and staff at Desert Mountain High School resulted in abusive uses of force against their autistic son.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in May, John and Mary McCarthy also allege that staff, administrators and district leadership failed to contact them in a timely manner that force was used to restrain their son, who has non-verbal autism.
The lawsuit, which is ongoing, details a litany of alleged failures that the McCarthys claim caused severe harm to their son, who is now 18.
Mary McCarthy said her son suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences and currently sees a psychiatrist.
A district spokeswoman declined comment, citing SUSD’s policy against commenting on pending litigation.
In a response filed in federal court, the district denied the charges – which include civil and constitutional rights violations, assault and negligence against several current and former district employees.
However, official district documents obtained by the McCarthy family appear to support some of their claims and contradict some of the district’s statements in federal court.
CPI holds and use of force
The McCarthys alleged in their federal complaint that teachers or staff at Desert Mountain used what the district termed “CPI holds” to restrain their son during outbursts even though they were not trained in those holds.
CPI, or the Crisis Prevention Institute, is an organization that provides non-violent crisis intervention training for teachers, healthcare workers and other professions.
According to the group’s website, it advocates the use of physical restraints only when an individual “poses an immediate danger to self or others.”
In their complaint, the McCarthys alleged that the district and staff violated state law because untrained individuals, including Chris Satterlie, performed holds on their son.
Satterlie was a special education teacher at Desert Mountain High School at the time the alleged incidents occurred and served as the case manager for the McCarthys' son for some of his time there.
Arizona state law governing restraint used in an education setting states:
“The restraint or seclusion technique shall be used only by school personnel who are trained in the safe and effective use of restraint and seclusion techniques unless an emergency situation does not allow sufficient time to summon trained personnel.” The use of improper restraint techniques can be deadly.
An autistic student identified as 13-year-old Max Benson died on Nov. 29 after being put in a restraint position for an extended period of time at a private school in El Dorado Hills, California.
The Sacramento Bee reported that a preliminary investigation by the California Department of Education found that school staff violated state regulations by “using an emergency intervention — the prone restraint — for ‘predictable behavior,’ using an emergency intervention as a substitute for the student’s personally-designed behavior intervention plan and using the restraint for longer than necessary.”
In its response in federal court, SUSD stated “Defendants deny that (the McCarthys' son) was subjected to CPI holds from untrained and uncertified individuals.”
However, a district document entitled “Certified Corrective Action Memorandum” sent to Satterlie from Dawn Schwenckert, SUSD’s then-director of Special Education, on Jan. 27, 2017, stated that on Jan. 24, 2017 “Mr. Satterlie revealed he had performed holds on (the McCarthys' son) and Mr. Satterlie is not CPI certified.”
The California death has some unsettling parallels to the McCarthys' case, including the failure to use a personally-designed behavior plan instead of restraint to address outbursts.
The memo sent by Schwenckert to Satterlie acknowledges that a behavior plan was created for the McCarthys' son in November 2016 but was never implemented.
The memo also states that the staff made changes to the McCarthys' individualized education plan to address behavioral incidents and ensure parents were contacted if incidents did occur, but “none have been done with fidelity or consistency.”
A larger problem
Mary McCarthy said the Satterlie incident was part of a larger problem that began when they sent their son to Desert Mountain in 2014.
She said while at the school, her son’s behavior became worse and he even resorted to self-harm – a behavior he had not exhibited as a younger child.
“It’s unusual for self-harm to just begin at a late age as it did with our son,” she said.
The McCarthys' son previously attended Copper Ridge Middle School and thrived there, due in large part to support he received from teachers and other students, Mary McCarthy said.
She said it “was four years of absolute heaven for us and, honestly, that has been our experience with most Scottsdale schools.”
Though McCarthy acknowledged her son had issues typical of any student with autism, for the most part “he was a very happy, even popular, child at school, particularly at Copper Ridge Middle School. He just did really well there.”
She said he excelled academically and “his peers were some of the best kids you would ever want to meet.”
She said that the family had to work out issues with the school occasionally, but it was handled in “a very positive and collaborative manner, because I don’t think fighting with the school district is productive. I think working with them is always your best first choice.”
Things began to change after her son left Copper Ridge.
Initially, the McCarthys butted heads with the district over where their son would attend high school.
The family wanted him to attend Chaparral High so he could be with the friends he made at Copper Ridge and to grow his interest in cooking by taking part in its culinary program.
The district wanted to place him at Desert Mountain, which is their home school and recently started a new program for students with autism.
Ultimately, the district acquiesced and the McCarthys' son attended school at Chaparral.
However, Mary McCarthy said “it was a disaster from day one,” and the family eventually agreed to send him to Desert Mountain.
“He’d become aggressive, which when a child can’t talk, that’s communication,” McCarthy said.
In the beginning, Mary McCarthy said she received reports that her son’s behavior had improved.
“His behavior improved, or so I was told, and he was doing well,” she said. “He was making progress on his goals. All of his reports came back that ‘Well, he’s still having some issues, but he’s generally progressing well – improvement, improvement, improvement.”
That is when the family noticed troubling signs.
“We started seeing things that were definitely not improvement,” McCarthy said. “He became overly aggressive and began self harming, throwing himself into walls and hitting his own head.”
McCarthy said the family’s first reaction was to take him to the doctor but that they were unaware their son’s behavior and education plans were not implemented or that teachers and staff had used physical restraints to control outbursts.
The McCarthys now believe their son’s behavior was a reaction to his experiences at Desert Mountain.
The couple’s lawsuit alleges that on multiple occasions, Desert Mountain staff – including Satterlie, special education teacher Brian Akmon and paraprofessionals Marc Telep and Carlos Lopez – used CPI holds and pinned their son to the floor or tackled him against a wall.
In a separate response filed by his own lawyers, Satterlie denied those claims.
In its response, the district denied many of those claims, though it did acknowledge that the McCarthys’ son was “touched aggressively” by Telep and Akmon, but “only when he aggressively attacked staff.”
A district email from English teacher Laural Onstott to special education teacher Stephanie Jennings includes a request from Onstott asking Jennings to modify an incident report.
“I just need the parts that say he was up against the wall taken out,” the email reads.
Throughout its response, the district states that any restraints or physical responses by staff were responses to excessive aggressive behavior that threatened the safety of school staff or students.
The McCarthy family and the district reached a settlement agreement in April 2017 related to complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The district agreed to provide certain records requested by the family by May 31.
According to papers filed by Satterlie’s attorneys, the agreement also called for the district to pay for the family’s attorney’s fees and private placement for their son.
The McCarthys’ suit alleges that the district violated the agreement by failing to provide all documents by the deadline – an assertion the district denies.
Mary McCarthy also said the family never would have agreed to the settlement had they had access to the district memo concerning Satterlie’s conduct.
They did not receive the memo until August 2017, months after the settlement agreement, McCarthy said.
In addition to alleged uses of restraint against their son, the McCarthys also took issue with the district’s failure to tell them of the incidents of restraint in a timely manner.
Arizona law requires schools to notify parents within 24 hours if a use of restraint occurs.
In a response to the federal lawsuit, the district repeatedly denied that it failed to report uses of restraint to the parents.
However, an SUSD memo acknowledges Satterlie revealed that he performed holds on the student and that he “did not communicate with parents when events occurred.”
Mary McCarthy, who began to request public documents from the district in January 2017, said she was not given the district memo until August 2017.
McCarthy alleged that numerous members of district leadership, including Schwenckert, SUSD General Counsel Michelle Marshall and Assistant Superintendent Milissa Sackos, knew about an incident on Jan. 17, 2017, and failed to provide the report to parents.
The McCarthys also have sued the district in state Superior Court over its alleged failure to turn over all applicable documents requested by the family via public records requests.
Judge Daniel J. Kiley issued a partial summary judgment on Dec. 6 in favor of one of the family’s motions, indicating the district did fail to comply with state law on a request for disciplinary records for a Desert Mountain teacher.
Mary McCarthy also alleged that school staff took her son off campus multiple times without her permission to participate in an offsite work program in a cafeteria at a retirement home.
She said she did not consent to her son participating in the program because she thought it would exacerbate the behavioral issues he was dealing with at the time.
Though the lawsuits have been going on for months, Mary McCarthy said she chose to speak out now because she is distressed that many of the parties involved in the alleged mistreatment of her son have not been held accountable.
Satterlie, her son’s former teacher, left the district and now teaches special education at New Canaan High School in New Canaan, Connecticut.
McCarthy is also concerned about what she sees as a lack of transparency shown by district leaders throughout the ordeal, including Sackos – whom McCarthy believes is being considered for the open superintendent position at SUSD.
“We cannot have any more of these people who would rather cover up the problem than fix it,” McCarthy said.
The Progress was unable to verify that Sackos is being considered for the open Superintendent position. The SUSD Governing Board is scheduled to announce its finalists for the job on Dec. 20.
McCarthy said her son now attends a private school for autistic students called Sierra Academy.
“They did everything possible to save our son, and they literally saved his life,” she said. “The work they’ve done is just amazing and our son now feels safe at school and he’s happy to go again.”