Parents who alleged that their autistic children had been tied to chairs with bungee cords and duct tape in a Scranton-area schoolroom have agreed to settle a federal civil-rights suit for $5 million.
Plaintiffs' attorneys said the settlement reached Thursday appeared to be the largest ever in Pennsylvania involving the abuse of children in a special-education classroom.
A report issued last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said such cases were on the rise nationally. A bill in Congress would set standards for when and how children could be restrained in schools for their own safety or the safety of others.
The allegations in the Scranton-area case went beyond restraint.
The parents of seven children at the Clarks Summit Elementary School in the Abington Heights School District contended that teacher Susan Comerford Wzorek slapped children, pulled them by the hair, and deliberately stepped on the insoles of their feet.
In one instance, an attorney said Friday, the teacher pulled a child across the room by a cast on his broken arm.
"These children were nonverbal, so they were not in a position to go home and tell their parents what was happening," said James J. Conaboy, a Scranton lawyer for several of the plaintiffs.
He said of the parents: "They were sending their children to a virtual torture chamber for two years."
The incidents occurred during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years. The children then ranged in age from 5 to 11. The lawsuit was filed in 2006.
After the allegations came to light, Conaboy said, Wzorek, now retired, entered a no-contest plea to a criminal charge of recklessly endangering the welfare of children. She was sentenced to probation, he said, but ended up doing 30 days in the Lackawanna County jail for a probation violation.
Wzorek and her employer, Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19, were defendants in the lawsuit, along with the school district and several educational officials.
John E. Freund, an attorney for several of the defendants, said none of them admitted liability in the settlement, which was overseen by U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
"By settling," Freund said, "I don't think anyone concedes anything."
Freund said that because the case did not go to trial, the court never had the chance to evaluate the methods Wzorek used in class.
The chairs she used for restraint were "therapeutic devices" designed to help children with disabilities, he said.
Rita Shreffler, executive director of the National Autism Association, said Friday that although she wasn't familiar with the Clarks Summit case, she was sure that duct tape and bungee cords were never appropriate.
She said cases of overrestraint in schools were being uncovered more frequently across the country.
"It amounts to torture," she said. "These kids are being tortured."
The GAO said it "could not determine whether allegations were widespread."
But it said it had found "hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on schoolchildren during the past two decades."