When Jennifer Schutter and Ed Hernandez’s child PJ came home from school one day in fall 2020, his hand was swollen. PJ, an elementary student in the Carroll Independent School District, is autistic, legally blind and has motor and speech delays. Schutter said PJ is basically nonverbal, so he couldn’t articulate what happened to his hand.
His parents took PJ to the hospital, where an X-ray revealed he had two broken fingers. A report of the incident from the school signed by the principal said there was no evidence the injury happened at school, but the Southlake Police Department came to a different conclusion.
One of the school’s resource officers, who works for the Southlake police, reviewed footage from a hallway camera and wrote up what they saw. According to the officer, PJ might have smashed his hand between his walker and a metal door at school.
The family filed several grievances against the district over PJ’s broken hand. The case was settled in April 2021 through the district’s grievance process, in which parents can ask for corrective measures to be taken. But PJ sustained more injuries at school four months after the grievances over his broken hand were settled with the district. After the family filed a grievance about these injuries, Hernandez and Schutter say someone with the district reported them to Child Protective Services, alleging PJ was being neglected and abused by his parents.
CPS cleared the family of any wrongdoing, and to Schutter and Hernandez, the complaint against them seemed like retaliation. When Carroll ISD wouldn’t respond to their latest grievance, the family turned to the U.S. Department of Education. This was just one of the struggles they’d experienced with the district’s special education programs over the years, and things didn’t get much better from there.
That year, Schutter filed an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint with the Education Department claiming the district had retaliated against her. In 2022, the family filed another civil rights complaint against the district alleging neglect of their son. The school district is now under eight civil rights investigations by the Education Department. The complaints that led to these investigations were filed by several people, including Schutter and Hernandez.
The Department of Education won’t discuss specifics of any of these cases. A spokesperson would only say what kind of complaints were made that led to the investigations.
“The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights can confirm that there are eight open investigations into Carroll ISD,” a spokesperson for the department said in an emailed statement. “Three investigations are open under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities of 1990; two are open under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and three are open under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
The school district has been at the center of controversy over alleged discrimination since at least 2018, as NBC News detailed in multiple reports and a multipart podcast series. That’s the year a viral video came out of the district showing white high-school students chanting a racial slur. As a result, parents, students and graduates started coming forward with their experiences of racism and anti-LGBTQ harassment.
In the middle of it all, Schutter, Hernandez and other parents of special education students have been advocating for better conditions for their children.
The district’s communications and engagement department didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
“The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights can confirm that there are eight open investigations into Carroll ISD.” – U.S. Dept. of Education
Schutter said the district has refused to hear their grievances or has taken months to do so. She said this has gotten worse with the current school board, and parents feel their only means of recourse is to turn to the federal government.
“That’s why I think people have gone to the OCR,” she said. “I think the reason that there’s been an explosion here in OCR and federal complaints is because there is no other route to having your issues addressed.”
PJ had a stroke when he was 9 months old that required life-saving brain surgery. The stroke left him unable to blink with his right eye. He also has trouble balancing, so he uses a walker and needs constant supervision to prevent him from falling. Because he can’t blink, he has to lubricate his eye in other ways, Hernandez said. This can be done with eye drops throughout the day or with a special contact lens. Without these interventions, PJ could lose his eye, Hernandez said.
In November 2019, before the broken hand, Schutter emailed the school saying that PJ had come home without his contact lens again. She said they’d spent thousands of dollars on replacements and wouldn’t be able to get any more for a while, so PJ would need eye drops in his right eye every hour. Within a month, PJ was in the hospital with an infection in his right eye. He was on antibiotics for a month to get rid of the infection.
Schutter started advocating for better special education services a few months later after schools shifted to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, PJ would spend half the day in various therapy sessions. But when everyone had to switch to remote learning to slow the spread of COVID-19, Schutter said none of the learning materials were adequate or specific to PJ. He got a link to several websites, including a YouTube video about proper handwashing. Schutter asked for something better and got about 40 worksheets. They included assignments that would have PJ practice writing letters. Schutter said about two months went by before the family got assignments that were at PJ’s academic level. The family estimates that PJ lost out on hundreds of hours of therapy as a result.
Things didn’t get much better when he returned to in-person instruction in August 2020, a month before PJ came home with a broken hand.
That August, PJ’s parents said, he came home with the right side of his face and eye scratched and oozing blood. Schutter emailed the special education teacher asking how this could happen if PJ had one-on-one supervision. Schutter also said they didn’t have any problems with this while he was learning from home.
The special education teacher said one-on-one supervision was not included in PJ’s individual education plan. PJ’s eye did seem irritated, and he was rubbing it that day, the teacher responded by email. They said they made sure to apply his eye drops when they noticed and continued to do so throughout the day. The teacher also said that back-to-school photos recently taken of PJ showed the same scratches Schutter was emailing about. Schutter requested a meeting the next day with the admission, review and dismissal (ARD) committee, which helps determine students’ individual education plans.
Schutter asked the committee if PJ had someone with him at all times during the school day. A committee member said PJ did have someone in close proximity to him at all times, but it wasn’t on a one-to-one basis. Sometimes that person would be the teacher. Sometimes it would be a paraprofessional.
During the ARD meeting, the committee said PJ would be supervised at all times, but they’d first have to train more paraprofessionals.
The committee determined that PJ’s scratches didn’t happen at school, which was frustrating to Schutter, but she was satisfied that more people would be trained to accommodate her son. She also understood that it was still early in the school year, and she attributed some of the issues to that. By mid-September, the school had also set up a check-in and check-out procedure for PJ to make sure he wasn’t injured when he arrived and left school. Still, a few days later, he allegedly broke two fingers at school.
On Sept. 23, 2020, the family’s nanny cam shows PJ’s nanny waking him up for school. It also shows PJ’s hand wasn’t injured that morning, the parents say. When Hernandez took him to the bus stop, his hand was still fine.
The day before, the school reported a scratch on PJ’s face when he checked in. But when he was checked in to school on Sept. 23, 2020, no one at the school reported anything was wrong with his hand. Around 11:30 a.m., however, the school would reach out to PJ’s parents saying that his hand was injured and ask if they noticed anything at home that morning.
They took him to the hospital after school and called the Southlake Police Department to file a report.
In an October 2020 report on the incident, the school denied that any Carroll ISD staff saw PJ fall on the day his hand was injured. The report also said that, according to school staff, PJ didn’t appear to experience discomfort or pain based on facial expressions and body language.
But a police report the family would get in November 2020 told a slightly different story. That month, Schutter filed a grievance with the school, asking for a complete and unredacted copy of the investigative report. She also asked that the school admit that the injury occurred on campus and not at home and that PJ did not have one-on-one supervision at the time of the injury as well.
The school agreed to hand over an unredacted version of the investigative report, but it declined to admit the injury happened at school. The school also said that PJ’s individual education plan still didn’t call for one-on-one supervision at all times. Instead, a teacher or a paraprofessional was in the classroom to supervise him and other students. However, he didn’t have a dedicated paraprofessional to monitor him exclusively, something the family said is required to make sure he doesn’t injure himself.
“He cannot tell me what happened. He cannot tell me if he is OK. It is infuriating.” – Ed Hernandez, PJ’s father
The family requested another ARD meeting to develop a plan for PJ while an investigation into his injury was pending. They also scheduled another meeting that month to determine if PJ had lost skills or learning while attending class online.
The parents received the police report in November 2020. It explains that around 8:45 a.m. two staff members were helping PJ through a doorway to get to the playground. “PJ proceeded to the doorway, he drifted slightly to his left and with the left side of the mobility device he struck the left side of the metal door frame structure,” the report said. “There is not a camera angle, which would show whether his hand struck the metal doorframe as well, but he clearly struck the left side, and his left arm was positioned on the extended left arm support.”
The report said that PJ didn’t fall to the ground or make any gestures to indicate he was injured. The school staff repositioned PJ and helped him onto the playground. “He seemed calm and enjoyed the outside recess time at the start of his recess but, as he began to walk back toward the school and across the bridge, I noticed PJ putting his fingers in his mouth,” the report said. “If he had struck the metal doorframe as he transitioned to the playground the pain may not have affected him. Almost nine minutes had passed, and his discomfort could have increased.”
The report said there was no evidence that anyone hit PJ, that he was struck by an object or that he had fallen from any structure that may have caused the injury.
Schutter said there was some turnover at the school around this time. The district also got new leadership in the special education program. “Unfortunately that’s really what it takes to get any of the issues addressed,” she said. This also resulted in the district putting cameras in the special education classrooms.
“That has been helpful for a lot of issues with abuse and neglect, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
But, as parents would find out, getting that video footage isn’t always easy.
Parents who want to watch a video of one of these classrooms must fill out a form, essentially accusing the school district of abuse or neglect. “If abuse and neglect exists then you get granted to watch the video. If it doesn’t exist then you don’t get to watch the video,” Hernandez said.
He said parents should have access to videos of their kids without having to accuse the district of neglect or abuse. “I feel that puts the parents in a very uncomfortable position and a very antagonistic approach,” he said. “Right away you have to make an accusation instead of trying to collaborate, instead of trying to communicate what went wrong and how can we fix it. I think that right away it puts the parent in a corner.”
PJ also attends school over the summer. It’s intended to help him retain what he learned during the previous school year, Hernandez said. A nurse is supposed to evaluate him when he gets to school and before he leaves. This is a routine that was put together as a result of their son’s previous injury at school.
Their son went to school on the morning of June 16, 2022. His individual education plan called for him to be checked in and out every day by a nurse. But the nurse was contracted to stay only until 11:30 a.m. that day. Before leaving, the nurse called Hernandez to report that everything seemed to be fine with his son’s contacts.
But when he went to pick up his son, Hernandez saw that his eye was irritated, his face was being washed and his shirt was covered in blood. “He cannot tell me what happened. He cannot tell me if he is OK,” he said. “It is infuriating.”
The pattern was repeating, he said. “When these incidents happen, hide it, deny it, blame the kid, blame the family,” he said. “Unfortunately, or fortunately for us, we experienced that already multiple times. So I knew what was going to happen.”
He requested the classroom video, which is when he found out that he had to accuse the school of abuse or neglect to get it.
Aaron Heil, the district’s coordinator for special education, said that while the recording didn’t document abuse or neglect as defined in the Texas Family Code, it did document a significant act involving a student. Because of this, the district allowed Hernandez to view the video.
It showed that sometime between 11:45 a.m. and noon, the paraprofessional assigned to their son took a break from the one-on-one supervision. “The teacher was in the classroom but the teacher was on his laptop doing something else,” Hernandez said. “PJ was not supervised.” During this time, Hernandez said his son could be seen in the video scratching his eye some 30 times. His eye was bleeding and his face was covered in blood.
This is the incident that led the family to file a second OCR complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on July 29, 2022, alleging neglect of PJ.
“If the individual education plan is not followed, and an injury occurs or an accident happens, it’s considered neglect,” Hernandez said. “There’s no doubt that neglect happened that day because PJ didn’t have a one-on-one, which was already stipulated in his IEP, and PJ didn’t have the check out procedure performed by the nurse because when the incident happened no nurse was on campus. For me, that’s neglect.”
Hernandez said he was unsure about talking to the press about the second complaint. In 2021, in the midst of filing grievances and trying to make sure his son was safe in school, Hernandez ran for a position on the Carroll ISD school board and lost. In 2022, he was ousted from the Carroll Education Foundation after filing the first OCR complaint. He doesn’t want anyone to think that this is the reason behind all of his grievances and complaints.
“Me talking to you, I’m not sure if I’m being brave or if I’m being stupid,” Hernandez said. “But at the same time, I want people to see the other side of the coin, the other side of the story.”
Such problems aren’t exactly unusual in Texas. “There are significant issues around children who are being restrained and secluded and hurt in schools,” Kym Rogers, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said.
“Me talking to you, I’m not sure if I’m being brave or if I’m being stupid.” – Ed Hernandez
The district and school a student attends can determine the quality of special education services. “Obviously it shouldn’t vary,” Rogers said. “Every student is entitled to a fair and appropriate education. It should be consistent.”
However, that’s not always the case. “There are differences in districts and there are differences in schools,” she said. “It can very much be a personnel issue. I do think leadership at the top of the district matters greatly, but I think the teachers and principals and the campuses matter a lot as well.”
She said it takes parents, advocates and lawyers to bring about significant changes.
“It takes a strong, educational agency of the state that is monitoring the districts and making sure corrective action is taken when they’re missing the mark,” she added.
Rogers said there are students who require one-on-one support to receive a free and appropriate education under federal law. “This is considered to be a more restrictive setting for a student, so the school should be working to address the behaviors underlying the need for this level of support, with the goal of more independence for the student,” Rogers said. Some students will always need this level of support, she said.
Such support requires money, however, and federal funding for special education has fallen behind. In the middle of all of this, Carroll ISD has struggled to hire and retain special education teachers and paraprofessionals.
Congress passed the Education of Handicapped Children Act in 1975 to ensure students with special needs receive a free and appropriate education. This later evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. The laws put rules in place for districts to follow and authorized grants to states to help pay for the added costs of special education.
This federal funding is supposed to pay for up to 40% of average pupil spending nationwide to help offset the costs of special education. But, in a too-typical case of “unfunded federal mandates,” a 2020 report by the Congressional Research Service found that this federal funding paid for less than 15% of the average spending per pupil, according to edweek.org.
In 2021, Carroll ISD increased its budget for special education because it was having trouble hiring and retaining staff, according to Community Impact.
“Since the beginning of the [2021-22] school year, it’s been very difficult finding special education paraprofessionals for many districts in the DFW area,” Lauren Wurman, executive director of human resources, told Carroll ISD’s board of trustees in September 2021. “There is not a district around us that is fully staffed with special education paraprofessionals.”
Things haven’t been all bad at Carroll ISD. While the family does have two pending civil rights investigations against the school, they say there have been improvements in recent months.
Schutter said the district recently got a new director of special education services.
The new director, Schutter said, is great. “But she’s like one person and trying to fight against a lot of entrenched people, and she’s trying to fix a program that has no foundation. She’s trying to educate and keep these kids safe and trying to build a foundation at the same time when she doesn’t have staffing.”
She said the district’s special education programs face several challenges but safety should be the first priority.
“Our children don’t have access to grade-level education. They don’t have access to the programs necessary to make meaningful improvement,” Schutter said. “But before we can address that we have to address safety.”