Milton schools places principal on administrative leave

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Neil Johnson
Wednesday, March 5, 2014

JANESVILLE—The Milton School District has placed a school principal on administrative leave pending an investigation into an encounter the principal had with a student with autism last month, authorities said.

A Janesville police incident report released Wednesday reveals Superintendent Tim Schigur put Harmony Elementary School Principal Jeanne Smith on leave directly after school staff reported to him they'd witnessed Smith “physically restraining” a boy with autism Feb. 18, apparently using her hands and feet, police said.

Lt. Keith Lawver of the Janesville police detective bureau said the incident happened inside a quiet “time-out room” at the school on Janesville's northeast side, while the student, a boy in the second grade, was having a “tantrum.”

He said two school staff who'd placed the boy in the room as part of a procedure used to calm the boy's tantrum, witnessed Smith go in the room and restrain the boy using her hands and feet.

Some school district employees are trained to handle physical outbursts by students using prescribed physical restraint holds. It's not clear if Smith's actions were related to a restraint hold, but Lawver said staff who witnessed the incident weren't sure if Smith's actions were proper.

“I think in general, they just weren't sure if it was appropriate, and brought it to the (district) superintendent's attention,” Lawver said.

He said police have finished their investigation of the incident, which was initially reported as a possible child abuse case. Police haven't released full details of the investigation, but he said Smith has not been arrested for any criminal wrongdoing.

“We've determined nothing criminal happened,” Lawver said.

Schigur told The Gazette late Wednesday that Smith remains on administrative leave, but he would not say if she's being paid on leave. Prior to the Feb. 18 incident, Smith, a longtime district employee, had announced plans to retire at the end of the year.

Schigur said the district has had to wait until police ended their investigation to launch a district administrative investigation into the incident. He said he could not confirm statements released by police, but he said the district is working to learn facts of the incident before taking further action.

“Right now, it's ongoing. I can't comment much. We're doing due diligence, assessing the findings and how they relate based on district policies, protocols and procedures. We'll determine what needs to happen,” Schigur said.

The student's father, Joshua Hooker, said his son is autistic and has frequent “meltdowns” at school. He said police haven't shared investigative details with him, but he said staff told him his son was having a tantrum in class Feb. 18.

“On this day, he was having a meltdown. He can be kind of violent and out of control when that happens,” Hooker said.

Hooker, a town of Lima resident, said classroom aides had placed his son in the school's quiet room to calm him the day of the incident. He said the room has observation windows and gym mats padding the walls. His son apparently had begun to settle down when Smith entered the room and began to make physical contact with him, Hooker said staff told him.

“They were almost to the point he'd calmed him down enough to go back to class,” Hooker said.

Hooker said his impression from staff was that “the principal then decided to step in and go in there, when it wasn't really needed. She decided to put her two cents in. She took it upon herself and proceeded to verbally and somewhat physically abuse him.”

Hooker wouldn't elaborate on Smith's actions, saying he wanted to wait for the district to investigate.

Hooker said the school's special education staff has otherwise been “wonderful” with his son's needs this year, and he's made some gains in handling frustration in school. He said the district has been “cooperative” throughout the police investigation.

“The immediate staff has worked very had to work through these issues and get my son back on a more even kilter. He's having some major trust issues at school after this happened,” Hooker said.

Last updated: 9:30 pm Wednesday, March 5, 2014

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