Toni Crenshaw slipped over the fence of her school yard. At nine years old, she was attending Boulevard Heights School and Transitional Centre in Fort Worth, Texas, a specialized school for kids with high educational support needs.
Editor’s note: This article was commissioned by International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion (ICARS). It contains disturbing content about restraint injuries and deaths of children. Reader discretion is advised.
A teacher spotted Toni’s escape, called for help, grabbed her, and slammed Toni against the fence. Crying out, Toni slipped free and bolted. Before she knew it, she was under a pile of six adults who pinned her arms and legs to the ground while she cried, screaming she couldn’t breathe.
To Toni and her teachers, this was nothing new or unusual. Just another day at school. No big deal. Not even worth writing home about.
…Even though though a student much bigger than Toni had just recently been killed by the staff at this school.
March 1st, 2021.
Twenty-one-year-old Xavier Hernandez is ushered onto the bus, just like every day, by a staff member at his group home. He is heading to Boulevard Heights Transitional School– a specialty school serving disabled children between grades 1 and 12.
Described by his aunt, Ebonie Baltimore, as “smart, energetic, and funny,” Xavier has a passion for electronics and computers technology.
Xavier is autistic and has high support needs. In fact, a teacher even meets him at the bus and escorts him into the school in time to start class at 8:10 am.
We don’t know which teacher, or how many, will pin him to the ground today, or why.
Xavier has no history of violence.
What we do know is that by 10:44 am, someone at that school will place a call to 911 to report an injured person, and within an hour he will be pronounced dead to the horror and shock of his family.
The police report for that call to El Campo Drive in Fort Worth, Texas, is strangely lacking in detail. While other police reports generated that day have details of the victim and a written summary of the event in question, these sections are blank in Xavier’s public report record.
Months later, his grieving family still have found no one who will tell them what happened that day.
Not the reporting officer.
Not the teachers who were entrusted with his care.
Not even the principal of the school, Terry Guthrie, who told Xavier’s family that he performed CPR on Xavier before paramedics arrived.
Not even the medical examiner has given them an answer.
The only clue they have is a notification they received the day after his tragic death, saying that Xavier had been restrained before he died. This notification complied with Texas state law, which dictates that family must be notified when their children are restrained in school.
These are the things we know:
School started at 8:10.
Xavier was in critical condition before 11 am.
Somewhere in that 3 hour gap, he was restrained… the principal performed CPR… paramedics were called… and he died.
The school sent a bouquet of flowers to his funeral. This has been the only further communication extended to the family of the student who died in their care.
Fort Worth Police have confirmed that their homicide team is investigating Xavier’s death.
May 7, 2021
It is now a little over two months since Xavier died. The school is being investigated by Fort Worth police and by Disability Rights Texas – a legally-recognized watchdog group who step in at times when Texas won’t… like when an autistic student is punched in the face by a teacher at an independent school.
In the park next to the school, a woman named Isabella Ellis sees a young girl hop the fence from the school yard. Ellis, who is a child care worker herself, is shocked by what she sees happen next.
Ellis pulls out her phone and begins to film.
The video shows a group of adults – presumably teachers – piled on the ground over a small person. A child. Ellis is telling them how disgusted she is with them. One of the adults tells her she is welcome to take it up with the principal of Boulevard Heights.
“I will. I will,” Ellis replies. “I’m recording this. Seriously. I’ve never seen a kid get slammed into a fence before.”
“Listen,” says a teacher. “You cannot post a video of her.”
Thankfully, Ellis did not listen.
If she had not posted that video, Toni’s mother would never have known about the incident, because the school never did notify her, despite Texas education law requiring that notification, and despite the school being involved in an ongoing homicide investigation into the recent death of a student.
It was an anonymous text tip from an unknown number that led Sandra Crosby to the video of her daughter Toni. She “screamed and wept”, she told the Star Telegram. She questioned her little girl when Toni came home from school, and Toni confirmed that the video was of her.
Crosby pressed her daughter further and was aghast to learn that her daughter didn’t consider the incident to be anything unusual.
She told her about other things that had happened before, including a time she said a teacher put her elbow into Toni’s neck while she was restraining her. Teachers sometimes push other students up against walls or slam them to the ground, Toni said.Star Telegram
I doubt Toni’s mother knew about Xavier. Given that the school barely spoke to Xavier’s family after his death, they don’t seem like the type of school to send home a notice to all parents saying, “Just so you guys know, we killed one of our students the other day. Nothing to worry about…”
If she had known, it would have been even more chilling when she called the principal, Terry Guthrie, and he told her that he had seen the video and was not concerned by it.
This is the same man who, just two months before, had allegedly performed CPR on a student who was presumably not breathing after restraint, and arranged for a bouquet of flowers to be sent to the young man’s subsequent funeral.
This man was not concerned by his staff throwing a child half Xavier’s age against a fence and then pinning her supine on the ground in an illegal restraint, and failing to notify the child’s family.
And yes, it is illegal in Texas to pin a student to the ground. Specifically, it is prohibited to do anything to a student which:
(6) employs a device, material, or object that simultaneously immobilizes all four extremities, including any procedure that results in such immobilization known as prone or supine floor restraint;
(7) impairs the student’s breathing, including any procedure that involves
(A) applying pressure to the student’s torso or neck”School Discipline Laws in Texas
I think that six teachers pinning a child to the ground, or two teachers slamming a child into a fence, would definitely qualify as prohibited under that description.
The wanton lack of disregard for Toni’s life would be disgusting enough. But knowing that a student had only recently died after being restrained at the school makes it seem all the more horrific.
They can’t claim that they didn’t know the risks.
They knew the risks. They knew what could happen. They had seen it happen, and the memory would be fresh in their minds.
This wasn’t ignorance.
It seems almost as if the staff just… don’t care… if another student dies?
They can’t claim they have no training in crisis intervention.
We were unable to find information about the restraint training that educators and staff at Boulevard Heights use, but we know that their staff, the same ones sitting on fourth-grader Toni Crenshaw, were trained in crisis intervention.
Here, some of the same staff who were sitting on a nine-year-old girl can be seen in a PLC, or a professional learning community, for crisis intervention.
This image, from the Tweet, appears to be Wayland Scott, the man who would tell Isabella Ellis not to post the video of him sitting on Toni Crenshaw as she shrieked in terror.
Stop Risking Children’s Lives
If we had our way at Neuroclastic, all forms of restraint would be prohibited.
The death toll from restraint is far too high, and the science backing its use is far too imaginary.
There is plenty of research which shows that restraints cause death, trauma, and injury to all participants. Even supposedly safe holds, like the “basket hold” result in deaths.
The alternative? Requiring teachers to actually use their education and training to diffuse and de-escalate situations.
And yes, it can be done. But it requires an all-out ban. You can’t permit restraint under any conditions, because it’s too easy for teachers to think every little thing, like a child hopping the fence, justifies risking that child’s life.
The only thing that will motivate teachers to use alternative methods is requiring them to do so.
The alternative is the death of innocent people.
Little Toni survived being dog-piled by teachers for hopping a fence. She is one of the lucky ones.
The law which required the school to notify the parents after restraint came about after the death of Cedric Napoleon, a boy with a known history of being starved by his biological parents.
Cedric’s teacher, knowing he had a history of starvation and food insecurity, repeatedly refused to let Cedric eat lunch as punishment for poor attention in class. When he finally tried to escape to get food, she pinned him to the ground and held him there until he suffocated.
A grand jury declined to indict her, and she moved to Loudon County, Virginia, and took up teaching special education again at Park View High School.
I have written about some of the children who have died for their transgressions— issued a death sentence by a teacher who lost patience and was given freedom under the law to wreak vengeance on the person who depended on them for care and education.
The common thread to all of them was how minor their transgressions were. Cedric, who wanted to eat lunch. Cornelius, who threw a sandwich. Angellika, who kept giggling and blowing bubbles in her milk. Corey, who didn’t want to stop playing basketball. Robert, who couldn’t find his teddy bear. Randy, who didn’t want to take a bath.
Max, who spat on the floor. Max, whose mother is on the Board of Directors of NeuroClastic.
In every death, there is a story of a child who had feelings about something, and an adult who decided to let them die on that hill.
We don’t know Xavier’s story yet. We may never know. Texas does not have a good history of transparency when it comes to restraint deaths at school or in police custody.
Only three months before Xavier’s death, Disability Rights Texas released a report which showed that Texas school districts chronically underreported– or failed outright to even track– incidents of restraint and seclusion.
It found that disabled children, especially disabled children of colour, and especially disabled children of colour whose disabilities directly related to behavior control problems, were disproportionately the recipients of dangerous restraints and cruel seclusions.
The schools seem to be missing a vital point– that rather than requiring children to risk death as a direct result of their disability, it should be the able adults’ responsibility to learn how to manage these disabilities without killing the children in their care.
Between 2018-2019, autistic children in Texas were restrained 9,527 times… and that’s just as reported. If incidents like Toni’s don’t get reported, then what could the real number be?
The report highlighted the dangers of relying on restraint– PTSD, trauma, and death.
The problem with reports like that one is that they only do any good if people actually care about the lives of disabled children, including disabled children of colour who face an even higher risk as schools bank on systemic racism to absolve them of responsibility.
And what’s clear to me, from Terry Guthrie’s nonchalant reactions, and the Boulevard Heights’ staff willingness to dog-pile a nine year old girl mere months after killing a twenty-one-year-old man… is that they don’t.
Here’s what you can do.
Support organizations like the International Coalition Against Seclusion and Restraint.
Please help us stop this.
Let us breathe.