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Prohibited restraints at Vancouver Public Schools draw concerns from mom, advocacy groups

The mother of a student with disabilities at Vancouver Public Schools is criticizing the district, and calling for policy changes after a staff member used largely prohibited restraints on her son.

LeAnn Slagle, 43, said she witnessed a Gaiser Middle School staff member hold her son on the ground outside, facedown to the concrete on Oct. 4. Her 12-year-old son suffered cuts to his lips and a back strain.

It was the second time in less than a week her son had been held to the ground, records show. In both cases, the same staffer attempted to break up a fight and took the student facedown to the ground.

The staffer, Jess Pritchard, was facing felony charges for punching his own son earlier in the year.

Pritchard, a former wrestling coach at Skyview High School, is effectively a school security guard. After his arrest in January for hitting his son, the district removed him as the wrestling coach, according to news reports. Pritchard, in November, pled guilty to a lesser charge: misdemeanor fourth-degree assault.

The incident raises questions about the district’s policies around employing people charged with crimes that involve violence against children.

It also raises questions about how frequently school security staffers restrain children by holding them on the ground. In Washington state, those techniques are prohibited against students, advocates say.

“My biggest concern is that the (the district) has been employing Pritchard the entire time and their lack of concern with him being around all children, not just mine,” Slagle told OPB.

Pritchard declined to comment. His attorney called Slagle’s story “unfounded allegations.”

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident on Oct. 5. A sheriff’s deputy interviewed Pritchard and another security official two days later and closed the case, declining to pursue charges.

Vancouver Public Schools opened its own internal investigation into Pritchard on Oct. 7. That investigation is still underway, district officials said.

Administrators at Gaiser asked staff members for statements after the Oct. 4 incident, according to records obtained by OPB. It’s unclear if school officials or district investigators have interviewed any other witnesses, such as parents or students.

Records show Slagle’s son fought with another child after school. The fight started around 3:30 p.m. after a child smacked a bag of chips out of Slagle’s son’s hand.

The two students fought, and Slagle’s son chased the other student after a staff member tried to break up the fight. Some members of staff reported that Slagle’s son had his hands around the other student’s neck at one point.

Pritchard caught Slagle’s son as he ran, the records show, and took him to the ground. Initially, he straddled the student, who lay on his back. Pritchard told a sheriff’s deputy he pinned Slagle’s wrists above his head.

According to Pritchard and two staff members, Slagle’s son freed an arm and “reached” for a Taser on Pritchard’s belt. Slagle and her son deny this.

Pritchard then flipped Slagle’s son onto his stomach. He told the sheriff’s deputy he kneeled on the student’s thighs and pinned his wrists above his head again.

Slagle, who arrived after being called by the school about the altercation, reported seeing Pritchard using one of his hands to hold her son’s head to the ground.

Pritchard let Slagle’s son get up after her arrival, records show. Slagle yelled at Pritchard and the nearby staff, cleaned blood from her son’s lip, photographed him and took him home, she said.

To her, Pritchard’s actions were out of proportion to the situation. She acknowledged her son, who has ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder and an adjustment disorder, has struggled with classmates. She blamed the district’s policies for setting the stage.

“I don’t think they should be allowed to use that restraint at all, ever,” she said.

It was the second time Pritchard took her son to the ground in five days. On Sept. 29, school records show Pritchard responded to a fight involving Slagle’s son by using what he described as a “bear hug” and a “wrist roll.”

Pritchard wrote in a report, authored on Oct. 3, that Slagle’s son threw a chair at security staff responding to separate the classmates. Pritchard wrote Slagle’s son thrashed as they tried to restrain him with handcuffs.

“At this point, I put the student in a wrist roll on his left hand and held his right wrist so [another security staffer] could unlock the handcuff on [his] right hand,” Pritchard wrote. “I held [Slagle’s son] down with my chest on his back for around 20 minutes, finally [he] calmed down and I was able to let him go.”

As of 2021, restraining a child on the ground — either “supine,” meaning on their back; or “prone,” meaning on their stomach — is prohibited in Washington state public schools, said advocacy group Disability Rights Washington

“They can asphyxiate someone. You can kill someone if you sit on them or restrain them in prone or supine (positions) because you can inhibit their breathing,” said DRW staff attorney Andrea Kadlec. “They’re actually very, very dangerous practices.”

Restraints in general, Kadlec said, can only be used if a student “poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm.” That’s written to create a very high standard and should make restraining students “a rare occurrence.”

To Slagle, a fight between students doesn’t clear that bar. She believes her son is being treated unfairly because he’s taller and heavier than many of his peers.

“I believe it’s because of (his) size,” Slagle said. “They have handcuffs that they could have utilized instead.”

The use of restraints combined with Pritchard’s recent criminal conviction raise questions about accountability at the district, according to ACLU Washington. Staff attorney Kendrick Washington called the situation “reprehensible.”

“When you put a child in those situations, the chance of injury is pretty high,” he said. “They’re dangerous. That’s the end of all of it.”

When asked about its policy employing people who have been charged with violent crimes, Vancouver Public Schools spokesperson Jessica Roberts said the district uses, “State law requirements around school employees to determine convictions that disqualify individuals from employment.”

The district did not respond by press time to questions OPB recently sent asking how often the district uses prone or supine restraints. The district also didn’t say whether using such techniques has led to any other internal investigations.

The Vancouver school district notched the second-highest number of restraints in all of Washington, according to the latest data. In 2019-20, the district’s staff restrained students 880 times. All but 11 cases involved students with disabilities, according to the data.

In a statement, the district said their training falls in line with state law.

“We are currently investigating the incidents at Gaiser Middle School and are evaluating not only this incident and the people involved, but also our staff training, implementation, and review processes to address identified areas of improvement,” said district spokesperson Jessica Roberts.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Troy Brynelson