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Mother plans to confront school board

By Bruce Schreiner

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 27 2011 1:18 p.m. MST

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Kentucky woman who has accused a school of stuffing her autistic son into a duffel bag for misbehaving plans to speak out at the next school board meeting, backed by an online petition demanding changes.

Sandra Baker said Tuesday her 9-year-old son Christopher has been unusually quiet and withdrawn since she claims to have found the fourth-grader wiggling inside the bag with the drawstring pulled tight as a teacher's aide stood by in a school hallway Dec. 14.

"It's to the point that I don't even know he's here," she said in a phone interview. "That's how quiet he is."

Baker said she plans to attend the next Mercer County school board meeting on Jan. 19 to present the petition, circulated on the website change.org after it was begun by an autistic college student outraged by the Baker case.

The petition says the teacher responsible for putting Chris in the bag should be fired. It also calls for comprehensive training for school personnel in dealing with children with developmental disabilities.

The petition — started by Lydia Brown, an autistic 18-year-old Georgetown University freshman from Boston — has garnered more than 14,000 signatures since its Dec. 21 launch, said Benjamin Joffe-Walt, a spokesman for change.org.

"Clearly there is anger over the alleged treatment of this boy," he said.

Brown said she never expected her petition to gather so much momentum, but said the incident "hits people personally."

She said she hopes the petition drive draws attention to the "lack of appropriate education for educators on how to interact respectfully and meaningfully with autistic students."

Her effort underscores the power of taking a cause to the internet.

"Armed with only a laptop and without any funding or support, an autistic 18-year-old has recruited more than 10,000 supporters over the Christmas weekend, with dozens joining every minute," Joffe-Walt said.

Legislation introduced in Congress seeks to prohibit schools from secluding students in locked and unattended enclosures or using physical restraints except in emergencies. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sponsor of one of the bills, said in a recent statement that it would set "long-overdue standards to protect children from physical and psychological harm and ensure a safe learning environment."

Chris Baker is a student at Mercer County Intermediate School in Harrodsburg in central Kentucky. He is enrolled in a program for students with special needs.

On Dec. 14, Baker said, her family was called to the school because Chris was acting up. As she walked toward his classroom, Baker said, she saw the wiggling bag with a small hole at the top. Soon, she said she heard her son asking, "Momma, is that you?"

She has said her son was sweating and his eyes "were as big as half dollars" when he was pulled out of the bag. She said doesn't know exactly how long he had been in the bag, but probably not more than 20 minutes.

Baker said Tuesday that her son was put in the bag as punishment: "No way was it for therapeutic uses."

Mercer County schools Interim Superintendent Dennis Davis did not immediately respond to calls and an email Tuesday seeking comment. Last week, Davis said confidentiality laws forbid him from commenting, but he praised the school system's employees as "qualified professionals who treat students with respect and dignity."

State education officials have said they were investigating. In Kentucky, there are no laws on using restraint or seclusion in public schools, according to documents on the state Department of Education's website.

A July letter from the state agency to special education directors said the state had investigated two informal complaints this year.

Baker said she met with school district officials soon after the incident but hasn't heard from them since. She said school officials told her it was not the first time Chris had been put in a bag, and that the bag was described as a "therapy bag."

She said she wants the practice stopped, calling it "a danger to the kids."

Baker said she's considering pulling Chris out of the public school system and home-schooling him once the holiday break ends.

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