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Lawsuit Alleges Abuse of Special-Needs DCPS Students

While District leaders continue to push for the reopening of K-12 campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, some parents, particularly those of special-needs students, said they’re happily embracing all that has come with distance learning, including significant improvements to their children’s physical and emotional health.

This has proven especially true for Gold Ukegbu, one of five parents who filed a civil suit in November against D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) citing allegations of abuse of her daughter and other special-needs children at River Terrace Education Campus, Walker-Jones Education Campus and Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School.

“I will be one parent who advocates for home schooling,” said Ukegbu, the mother of a nonverbal, developmentally delayed child who uses a wheelchair and suffers from a bevy of ailments, including scoliosis and aspiration pneumonia.

Last March, shortly before the District-wide transition to distance learning, Ukegbu reluctantly returned her daughter to River Terrace after she suffered a broken femur bone and back skin injuries, all under circumstances that Ukegbu said she hasn’t been able to determine.

Though school officials attributed the injuries to the negligence of a bus driver, Ukegbu said they have yet to produce an official report. She has been attempting to document the abuse and have her daughter placed in a well-regarded charter school for special-needs children since well before the start of the pandemic.

Neither has happened yet, but Ukegbu said her daughter can now enjoy a routine that involves schooling, physical therapy, pediatrics and napping under the guidance of her mother and siblings.

“When my daughter was at school, we [always] had a problem,” Ukegbu told The Informer. “Either she didn’t wear her hat, or she forgot to put on her jacket. There were always complaints and [the staff] was too careless and in a hurry. At home, my daughter has her own time for schooling and it works well for her.”

A Lawsuit Years in the Making

The quintet’s civil suit, filed on the behalf of their children on Nov. 22 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, outlines abuse episodes that allegedly occurred during the 2018-2019 academic year, and in the months preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, a teacher allegedly struck a student in the face at River Terrace in front of three staff members, while a nonverbal autistic youngster at Ludlow-Taylor suffered blunt-force trauma to his face.

In the aftermath of their children’s injuries, Ukegbu and the other plaintiffs mentioned in the civil suit filed police reports. The reports, none of which resulted in prosecution, petitioned for charges of simple assault and second-degree cruelty to children.

Yaida Ford, one of two attorneys representing the five parents, said DCPS officials had been notified through various means about the alleged use of unlawful restraints at River Terrace, Walker-Jones and Ludlow-Taylor.

The suit alleges that administrators at River Terrace hadn’t taken the necessary steps to create an educational environment for disabled children that’s equitable to that of their non-disabled counterparts. That includes hiring qualified behavioral specialists and improving the manner in which administrators report on-campus incidents of abuse.

“Parents are tired of having to send their kids into an unstable and unpredictable environment,” Ford said.

“When the child is nonverbal, the parent has to jump through hoops to find out what happened to them,” she added. “It says something about the state of education in the nation’s capital. You would expect D.C. to be a leader in the education of vulnerable populations. We are just as bad here, if not worse than other jurisdictions who lack our resources.”

In a statement to The Informer, DCPS declined to comment on the pending litigation but said it’s actively working with the Office of the Attorney General to address the lawsuit.

Securing Accountability

Joakima Jones, another parent mentioned in the civil suit, echoed Ford’s sentiments, saying that DCPS has sufficient resources to adequately support special-needs children, including her daughter.

In the spring of 2019, River Terrace reported an incident to MPD involving a teacher who allegedly pushed Jones’ daughter in her abdomen, pulled her ear and locked her in a cabinet in a classroom. Much to her chagrin, when the youngster returned to River Terrace at the start of the next school year, the staff member was still employed there.

Jones said that incident compelled her to seek psychological treatment for her daughter.

These days, Jones’ daughter is a student at St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a Capitol Hill-based charter school designed to help children and adults with intellectual disabilities fulfill their potential and become recognized as contributors to society.

If not for the pandemic, Jones said she would allow her daughter to return to the school, primarily because of the social atmosphere and staff members’ passion for helping youth, what she described as the total opposite of what River Terrace provided.

“I really want River Terrace to be held accountable for what they’re doing,” said Jones, whose daughter’s multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy and epilepsy, prevent her from independently carrying out a wide range of daily activities.

“I want them to utilize the resources they have,” Jones continued. “There’s no way that D.C. Public Schools can tell me that they don’t have the resources. They’re just not using it appropriately. The aides and all the other staff members need to care. At Coletta, the staff was compassionate, and they care. It wasn’t about money, but about service.”

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