A Severely Autistic Teen Wandered Away from Dallas' Conrad High, and No One Noticed [Updated]
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that the teacher leading one of Conrad high's autism units, Aimee Kelly, had been fired for alleged misconduct toward a student. She has not been fired, but is on paid administrative leave and her boss has recommended that she be fired. In an email message to Unfair Park, her lawyer says she was falsely accused and her case is still under investigation.
According to records Unfair Park obtained from DISD, Kelly was placed on paid leave and removed from the classroom for "conduct towards [a] special needs student that adversely affected the mental health of the student," according for request for administrative leave signed by Conrad Principal David Hamilton, which noted that a child abuse report was attached to the request. DISD declined to release that report, citing state confidentiality laws.
Records released by the district included a recommendation dated March 31 from Hamilton that Kelly be terminated. According to DISD documents, Hamilton reviewed a video tape of the incident that led to his recommendation that Kelly be fired.
ORIGINAL POST: A severely autistic teenager wandered away from Conrad High School in Vickery Meadow on Friday afternoon.
The boy, who police say functions on the level of a 3-year-old, was located four hours later wandering near Skyline High School -- 10 miles to the southeast of Conrad, in the general vicinity of his home -- after an intensive, four-hour search involving Dallas PD's canine unit and helicopter.
According to a police report, surveillance footage showed the teen walking from school alone at 3:30 p.m.
In an email to DISD officials obtained by the Observer, the boy's mother describes, in Spanish, her anguish on Friday. According to the email, she received a call Friday afternoon asking if she had picked up her son.
She hadn't, nor had her husband. The boy wasn't on the bus, and he hadn't boarded the bus he was supposed to take home.
Both parents rushed to the school, where they were greeted by several police officers asking questions about their son. No one seemed quite sure what had happened to him, the mother wrote, though they did show them footage of the boy leaving the campus.
Conrad High School is home to two of DISD's autism units, programs offered at select campuses designed to accommodate students suffering from severe forms of the disorder.
Zahra Darwish has an autistic daughter in a DISD middle school and often helps other parents navigate DISD's special education system. She describes Conrad's Autism Units (there are two) as a disaster.
"I believe it could happen at any time," Darwish says. Conrad's autism units both currently lack a trained autism specialist, she says. In their stead, untrained substitutes come and go, overseeing a group of poorly trained, non-certified assistants.
This would be a problem in any special education classroom but is particularly worrisome with autistic teenagers who are prone to wandering and violent outbursts.
"They're not watching the kids," Darwish says. "A lot of them are not watching what is going on with the children. So how could this happen? It could happen very easily."
Stephanie Elizalde, the executive director over Conrad's feeder pattern, wrote in a March 27 email to DISD special education chief Angela Pittman that the district is trying to find "some workable solutions" to the recent autism unit issues.
Pittman responded with a plan for Conrad involving finding a qualified teacher to replace Kelly, working with substitute teachers and other staff on classroom structure and establishing routines and communication strategies for autistic students, and work with families on developing plans for their children after high school.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.