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Mom seeking $50,000 from school that put autistic boy in “box”

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WAUPUN -- The mother of an autistic boy in Waupun is taking the first step toward suing her son's school for locking him up in seclusion.  Mandy Rennhack filed a notice of claim with the Waupun School District seeking more than $50,000 in damages for "false imprisonment," after her son's special education teacher placed him in a so-called "quiet room" for refusing to follow directions.

FOX6 Investigators broke this story back in May, prompting a state investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.  It also generated huge reaction within the autism community.

Now, the state is ordering the school to stop using the plywood "quiet room" until changes are made.

"I'm surprised the number of people that did not know it existed in this town," Rennhack, whose 10-year-old son, Tyler, has Asperger's Syndrome said.

For weeks, Rennhack tried telling everyone that Tyler had been locked in a plywood box at Rock River Intermediate School, but says nobody would listen.

It's a 5-foot by 7-foot, padded room built of plywood, with a hard tile floor, no ventilation and a handle that locks when you hold it.

The room is designed to hold special education students in seclusion during a violent outburst, but earlier this year, Tyler was placed inside as punishment for refusing to follow directions.

“You have to do what the rules say you have to do,“ Donald Childs, who was still the Superintendent of Waupun schools when FOX6 first broke the story said.

"You don`t lock children up. You help them," Rennhack said.

When FOX6 News first reported the story in May, the autism community erupted in response.  Rennhack started getting Facebook friend requests from all over the world -- Texas, Tennessee, Canada and even the UK.

To Rennhack's relief, the story also prompted an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, or DPI.

"Something is being done now," Rennhack said.

On May 23rd, DPI ordered the Waupun School District to “stop using the seclusion room” until “corrective actions” are taken, like, installing a larger window or unbreakable mirror, adding ventilation and removing the locking door handle.

"It's an improvement. It's still a box," Rennhack said.

The state’s criticism goes well beyond physical attributes of the quiet room, saying Waupun’s use of the room was “not consistent” with the DPI’s 2009 directives on the appropriate use of seclusion and restraint in schools.

Those guidelines say that seclusion should only be used as a “last resort" when a child’s behavior poses an “imminent risk” to himself or others.

Rennhack says Tyler's teacher used it as punishment.

"If my kid was being put in that situation, I know I wouldn`t accept that," Deb Martinez, whose son Noah uses a quiet room at Whitnall Middle School in Greenfield said.  After seeing Tyler’s story, Martinez called the FOX6 Investigators.

"I wanted the public to know that`s not what every school does," Martinez said.

Whitnall Middle School special ed teacher Terry Lieske says they actually have three rooms devoted to soothing and calming autistic children like Noah -- a sensory room, a swing room and a quiet room.

"The quiet room part of it is very important because that is when the students are really having a hard time managing themselves in the learning environment," Lieske said.

"He's looking at it as, 'This is my safe place. I can be angry. I can get through it, and if I'm screaming and crying for ten minutes, that`s fine, but that`s my safe area to do that,'" Martinez said.

Lieske says they never close the door to the quiet room.  Instead, they use colored tape on the floor. 

"That`s their visual to remain there," Lieske said.

Rennhack says she supports the appropriate use of the “quiet rooms."

"There is a big difference between a room and a box," Rennhack said.

Rennhack says she’s not done fighting what she refers to as "the box” in Waupun. Earlier this month, her attorney filed a Notice of Claim with the school district seeking more than $50,000 in damages for false imprisonment.

If the school denies the claim, Rennhack will likely sue, but even if the district pays it, she says that's not enough.

“There’s still one problem. The box is still up," Rennhack said.

Rennhack says she won’t stop until the “box” is gone for good.

"I don`t want a plywood box to exist for children to be put into whether they make the adjustments or not. It's not right," Rennhack said.

After the quiet room conflict, Rennhack pulled Tyler out of school.  She applied to have him transferred to Beaver Dam schools under the state's open enrollment program.  On June 5th, the Beaver Dam School District approved Tyler's application.  The next day, however, Waupun's then-Superintendent Donald Childs denied the transfer, citing costs that would place an "undue financial burden" on the district.

Since then, a new Superintendent has taken over in Waupun.  Tonya Gubin says they are working with Beaver Dam to reduce the cost of the individualized program they designed for Tyler, and she is optimistic they will eventually approve the transfer.

Gubin says they are making physical changes to the quiet room as ordered by DPI.  She says they also plan to do staff training on dealing with autistic children.  They are developing policies to help them comply with a new state law on seclusion and restraint that takes effect September 1st.

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