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Mother claims 8-year-old with autism was mistreated, hurt by school staff

FRANKTON, Ind. (WISH) — The mother of a central Indiana boy with autism questioned restraint policies and special needs accommodations at Frankton Elementary School after he said he was picked up and carried to a seclusion room by three staff members.

Dylan Kelley, 8, is verbal and academically motivated but struggles to sit still, remain focused and read social cues, his mother Amber Kanzler said, citing pediatric and psychological evaluations.

Teachers and staff at his public elementary school in Madison County, approximately 45 miles northeast of Indianapolis, said they were aware of Kelley's symptoms before the incident on Monday, Feb. 4.

Kelley told News 8 he was having a "rough day" in his second grade classroom and was sent to complete a worksheet in the special education resource teacher's classroom.

He had difficulty completing the assignment, he said, and was reprimanded for neglecting his work and becoming agitated.

Kelley said he was instructed to choose between completing his worksheet or taking a "time out" but became too flustered to make — and communicate — a decision.

Three staff members eventually picked him up and carried him to a "time-out room" away from his peers, according to Kelley.

His mother and older sister told News 8 he had relayed the same version of events to them Monday after returning from school.

"I noticed he was acting strange," Kanzler said. "I asked Dylan if he had a good day at school and that's when he began to explain what happened. [He told me] two staff members each grabbed one of his arms and a third grabbed his legs. They carried Dylan, who was crying and struggling very hard, to the time-out room."

Kanzler claimed the incident resulted in bruising under and around both of her son's arms.

"I am aware of the situation with [Dylan Kelley] that happened Feb. 4 at our school," Ronda Pondzielinski, the Frankton Elementary School principal, said in response to inquiries from News 8. "The situation was the result of behavior that happened in the classroom that escalated after interventions had been attempted. It was determined that his behavior was unsafe to himself and others. He was taken to our time-out room in the office where he calmed down quickly."

She did not provide additional details about the "escalation" of Kelley's classroom behavior or how he had allegedly threatened the safety of others.

The principal maintained in her emailed response "all school policies and procedures" were followed and she believed appropriate forms of discipline were used.

"Our school team met to review our school's seclusion and restraint policy [to] best meet the needs of all students," she added.

The school acknowledged it had an "Individual Education Plan" (IEP) on file for Kelley, who had transferred to the Frankton-Lapel school district in November when his family moved.

A copy of the document provided by Kanzler lists the 8-year-old's strengths as being "loving and friendly," and "above grade level in reading and math."

"In the classroom he wants to please and gets along with other students," according to the document. 

The IEP also revealed Kelley struggles with "peer interaction, invades others' personal space and is sometimes aggressive in his attempts to be playful with his classmates."

However, his mother said she never authorized the school to place him in a "time-out room" and questioned why the disciplinary measure hadn't been addressed during her meetings with staff to create the IEP.

She called the use of physical restraint on her son "ineffective," noting children with autism often dislike being touched.

"[The special education resource teacher] advised other staff members of this," Kanzler told News 8. "She told them this was not the way to handle him. If he did something that forced them to use physical restraint, why didn't they contact me? I would have been at the school immediately." 

Her son's disclosure was the first time she heard about the incident, she said, and prompted her to question how many times he had been physically restrained or forcibly placed in seclusion in the past.

"When you have children, it's hard to trust anybody," Kanzler said. "But when you have a child with a disability... it just goes through the roof. It's really hard and I trusted them to care for my son, to provide him with an education and to contact me with any issues. They violated my trust, they violated my son's trust and they violated his body after being asked not to. As a mother, I feel like I failed him because I put him into this environment."

Dylan and his sister Mya Kelley, who is neurotypical, would not return to Frankton Elementary School, she said Wednesday. 

Bobby Fields, the superintendent of Frankton-Lapel schools, told News 8 district administrators addressed Kanzler's concerns during a meeting Friday morning.

Both children will continue attending Frankton Elementary School, Fields said in a phone conversation after the initial broadcast of this report.

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