Report: Milton Principal Jeanne Smith stepped on student to peak his tantrum

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Neil Johnson
Thursday, March 6, 2014

JANESVILLE—Harmony Elementary School Principal Jeanne Smith told police she stepped on an autistic student's legs in an attempt to “coax” the boy into reaching the peak of a tantrum so he'd settle down, according to police reports.

She told investigators her actions, which staff told police included Smith yelling comments at the student and telling staff “I'm going antagonize him,” were part of a plan to get the second-grade boy to settle down from an emotional outburst that had landed him in the school's isolation room Feb. 18.

That's according to Janesville police investigative reports released Thursday about the incident at the Milton School District school on Janesville's northeast side.

Smith was put on administrative leave after the incident, reported to Superintendent Tim Schigur by school aides who witnessed it, according to reports. Police have closed their investigation into possible child abuse. The district requested the investigation as part of a mandatory reporting requirement.

Police determined Smith committed no crimes, but the school district plans its own investigation, and Smith remains on leave pending the outcome, Schigur said.

Police reports detail allegations that Smith had intervened while the boy was having a tantrum after he was removed from class by two teacher aides and was placed in a padded isolation room in the school.

Isolation is part of individual education plans for certain students and is typically used to calm students during emotional outbursts when students could be at risk of injuring themselves or others.

According to the reports, the boy was pounding and kicking the door of the room, and aides had taken away the boy's shoes as his tantrum continued.

Smith came to the isolation room and told staff who were monitoring the situation, “I'm going to antagonize” the boy, according to witness reports. She then went into the room and began to use a restraint hold on the boy, putting him against a wall and pushing his knees to his chest.

During that physical encounter, a staff member watching the incident heard Smith yell at the boy “You're a rotten kid,” and “I don't care,” according to reports. She also told the boy, “If you hurt me, I'll hurt you,” according to witness reports.

A staff witness also heard the boy yell to Smith, “You're hurting me,” according to reports.   

The boy then tried to kick Smith, and she stepped on his ankles and his knee, according to reports. She ultimately left the isolation room to deal with a parent who was in the school office.

Police said there was no evidence Smith's encounter injured the boy, although there was a “nickel-sized” abrasion on the boy's knee. Police said they were unsure where that injury came from, but reports explained it “lacked bruising or discoloration normally consistent with being stepped on.”    

Smith told police the boy, who has emotional outbursts linked to his autism, has a history of reaching a peak in his tantrums, after which they subside. She told police the boy seemed to be “stuck in his cycle,” and she'd planned to use a physical intervention to get his tantrum to “peak” so he'd then settle down.

Smith denied calling the boy “a rotten kid,” although she said she may have used the term “antagonize” to tell staff about her plans to handle the boy's outburst.

Smith told police she “appreciated” staff reporting the incident because it showed they “view themselves as advocates for the children first.”

State statutes allow trained school staff to use prescribed physical restraint holds to handle students who are showing behavior that could pose a threat of physical harm to themselves or others. The law prohibits any restraint that puts pressure or weight on a student's chest or neck or makes it difficult for the student to breathe or maintain normal blood flow.

The statutes specify that the degree and duration of force used during physical restraints must “be the least restrictive intervention feasible” and must not exceed “the degree and duration necessary” to resolve the physically threatening behavior.

The law doesn't specify address how school staff may use their hands or feet during restraint holds, and it doesn't specify whether it's permissible to step on a student's limbs. It also doesn't specify whether physical restraint is permitted as a way to get a student's emotions to “peak” and then ebb.

Schigur has indicated the district plans to look into whether the district's own procedures and policies on student restraints and isolation were followed during the incident.

He wouldn't say whether Smith, who had announced retirement at the end of the year weeks before the Feb. 18 incident, is being paid while on leave.

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