HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) – The special education director for a Texas school district, accused of assaulting and unlawfully restraining a non-verbal student with severe autism, went on trial Monday nearly four years after the incident.
The Hutto ISD Special Education Director Dr. Stacie Koerth, and another special education employee Karen Perez, is accused of forcing the student with special needs into a jumpsuit back in 2018. The jumpsuit, according to court records, was meant to be a solution to an ongoing problem where the student was using the bathroom in inappropriate places.
The arrest records allege that in the process of trying out the jumpsuit on the student, Koerth and Perez unlawfully restrained him – including allegedly briefly hanging on to the victim as he attempted to flee into a different classroom. Part of the incident was caught on school surveillance cameras positioned in the school’s hallway, according to court records.
The Hutto High School principal Roy Christian is also facing a charge of failure to report related to the incident, after allegedly not reporting the incident to CPS in the required 48 hours. His trial is set for this June.
In opening statements Monday, the defense for Koerth described what happened on Nov. 29, 2018, as an attempt to modify a problematic behavior with a technique that had been used successfully before on other students. County prosecutors described a botched, out of control effort by Koerth and Perez, asking jurors ‘is this okay with you?”
In court Monday, the defense publicly played a video recording of a 2019 interview between former Hutto Police detective Scott Mattingly and Koerth. In it, Koerth tells the detective she had in the past successfully used a jumpsuit to alleviate similar habits in other students with special needs.
“Anytime you want to extinguish a behavior, it is going to be rough,” said Koerth during a January 2019 interview with Hutto Police detective Scott Mattingly. “I do not feel like [the student] was unsafe at any time. He did not like it. That is for sure.”
The jury in the trial is made up of six people, and two alternates. The defense for Koerth and the Williamson County Attorney’s Office narrowed down the jury from a pool of nearly 60 potential jurors, including parents of special needs students, teachers, and those with experience in special needs classrooms. Of the jury that was selected, at least one identified as an attorney and one juror said his own child was on the autism spectrum.
The trial – that is expected to last at least a week, according to the judge – is set to feature testimony from other special education teachers who witnessed parts of the incident and from the students own father Daniel Thompson, who told KXAN Investigators he will speak in defense of Koerth and Perez.
Thompson said they told him ahead of time they were planning to try to jumpsuit to alleviate the bathroom problem – and that he gave them permission to try.
“I do not believe they lost their tempers or anything like that. They were just trying to do what is best […] and in my book, that makes them heroes and not criminals,” said Thompson.
Witnesses, including detectives who formally worked the case, have characterized several aspects of the case as Atypical: from the timeline of the charges to the alleged delay in reporting the incident to CPS. According to court records, arrests did not happen until almost two years after the incident – during which Koerth, Perez and Christian remained employed with the district.
After the three were charged in November 2020, the superintendent of Hutto High School said in a statement the districts own investigation found Koerth and Perez used “unorthodox measures” but that they found the employees had not committed a crime or any misconduct worthy of suspension or termination.
“They are respected and admired by peers, students, and parents. Their records in education are stellar. While the tactic used by Dr. Koerth and Mrs. Perez was unconventional and regrettable, no actions were taken with ill intent,” said Superintendent Dr. Estrada Thomas in 2020.
The teachers involved in the 2018 incident at Hutto High School are being investigated by the Texas Education Agency’s Educator Investigations Unit, according to a spokesperson for the agency. A spokesperson for Hutto ISD said Koerth’s role with the district has not changed – and that Perez’s interaction with students has also not changed in the years since the incident.
KXAN reached out to the defense attorneys and prosecutors in this case who all declined to comment until the trial concluded – or have not answered yet as to an interview.
You can read about this case and other cases of alleged unlawful restraint in Texas’s special education classrooms in our investigation.