9 Investigates: Central Florida students being restrained at school

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - 9 Investigates uncovered a disturbing fact: Orange County special needs students were restrained by teachers and staff in the classroom more than 1,000 times during the last school year.

Investigative reporter Daralene Jones tried to ask the district what it's doing to decrease the number of restraint incidents, but first she met with a 9-year-old who experienced repeated restraints while at school.

“So you like coming out here to the camp grounds and everything?” Jones asked the boy during their interview.

“Yeah, just don't like being bitten,” he said.

It was almost impossible to get the boy to stop talking until Jones asked him about the first time he was restrained by an employee at United Cerebral Palsy Charter School.

His parents said Orange County schools suggested he attend that school because his learning disability was too severe for traditional public school.

“Very, very sad and it and it's very, very scared that I was going to die,” the boy told Jones.

The boy’s parents, Joe and Trish Ortaliz, told Jones that the problems persisted when he switched to Lawton Chiles Elementary, which is run by Orange County.

“Four people held him down for 45 minutes, per their documentation, until he was quiet and compliant,” Joe Ortaliz told Jones.

Three years later, newly released state data shows Orange County special needs students were physically restrained 1,014 times last school year.

That number topped all Florida school districts. And it's a 45 percent increase from the year before, when restraint was used in Orange schools 699 times.

The Chandler family is also familiar with the district’s restraint history. The Chandlers pulled their son, Tyler, out of the district, after he was restrained or secluded more than 400 times during one school year.

“He would pee on the floor, wake up crying,” said his mother, Monica Chandler. “He was falling apart and we finally had all of the pieces put together.”

The Chandlers showed 9 Investigates staff records from Stone Lakes Elementary School.

“They would seat him at a chair, desk lowered so that it would trap his legs under the desk and they would stand behind the chair with their feet to hold it him place,” said Jason Chandler, the boy’s father.

District leaders refused to do an on-camera interview with Channel 9, but they said physical restraint is only used when students could harm themselves or others.

Fewer than 1 percent of the district’s disabled students were restrained, they said. And Jones was told 13 students account for nearly half of the restraints.

The Ortaliz and Chandler families are now suing, saying only one thing will decrease restraints.

“If they followed the laws as they were written and if there was bigger repercussions, then I don't think we would have the issues that we have,” Joe Ortaliz said.

The school district’s director of Exceptional Student Education said teachers and staff go through a total of five days of training to learn how to de-escalate behaviors. Refreshers are given once a year.