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Call 6: Mom settles lawsuit with district over allegations they abused special needs student

Confidential financial settlement reached in case
Posted at 5:08 PM, Jan 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-16 19:59:22-05

WHEATFIELD, Ind. -- A Jasper County mother has settled a federal lawsuit with a public school district in which she accused them of repeatedly neglecting and abusing her son with special needs.

Melissa Christensen filed the lawsuit in 2015 against the Kankakee Valley School Corporation and teacher Brenda Kalinke in Jasper County Superior Court but the case was transferred to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Lafayette Division.

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“They need to be held accountable and it had to stop,” said Christensen in an on camera interview with Call 6 Investigates. “Every time I went to the school to do something, nobody ever took responsibility.”

The school district and Christensen settled for an undisclosed amount of money, however, Christensen said her son, Cody, is able to attend a special autism academy in Lafayette.

“I know I never have to take him back to public school,” said Christensen. “So, that’s a win, that’s huge.  Cody having security in his education until he’s 23 years old is satisfaction.”

Call 6 Investigates reached out to the Kankakee Valley School Corporation for a response on the settlement.

“The matter has been amicably resolved and Mrs. Kalinke is still an employee,” said Superintendent Dr. Aaron Case in an email to Call 6 Investigates Kara Kenney.

Cody is now 14 years old and has disabilities including autism, anxiety disorder and attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity.

The lawsuit alleged school employees performed “cruel, gratuitous and sadistic acts of mistreatment, psychological and physical abuse of Cody, including neglect battery and confinement.”

It also accuses the district staff of repeatedly confining Cody to an isolation room, and forcing Cody to eat lunch alone in a classroom away from his peers.

“The longest time he was in isolation was 3 ½ hours,” said Christensen. “He still suffers from the effects of it. When we drive by the school, he still has a reaction from what happened to him.”

According to Christensen’s attorney, Tom Blessing, of Carmel, the Kankakee Valley School Corporation failed to use appropriate interventions such as re-direction and positive reinforcement.

Blessing, who specializes in representing clients with autism, called Cody’s case the worst he’s seen in 25 years of practicing law.

“Our goal was to shine a light on the district,” said Blessing. “We detailed the allegations in a public forum and everyone can read that complaint and see what was happening in the school district. I’m satisfied if my client is satisfied.”

The lawsuit alleged “school employees left Cody in the room unsupervised for extended periods of time multiple times per day on practically a daily basis, on some occasions for approximately 2-3 hours,” and “at one point Kalinke suggested putting Cody’s desk in the isolation room so he could do all of his work there.”

The lawsuit detailed an alleged March 2013 incident in which Cody had been isolated, restrained and put in time out numerous times, resulting in red marks, bruises, and abrasions.

Cody's injuries

When Cody’s mother asked about it, Kalinke said she tried to carry Cody but dropped him five times in the process, read the lawsuit.

A December 2013 incident involved Kalinke and other school employees dragging Cody across the floor to the isolation room, resulting in rug burns, according to court documents.

The lawsuit also alleges a school employee pinched Cody’s genitals in an effort to gain compliance during a November 2014 incident.

Christensen repeatedly tried to work with the school.

“I was not getting answers,” said Christensen.

Call 6 Investigates found seclusion and restraint are supposed to be used not as punishment, but if a child is in danger of hurting themselves or others.

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A new law requires school districts to report seclusion and restraint incidents, however, Call 6 Investigates found some districts misreporting the data.

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Brenda Kalinke did not respond to an email seeking comment.