Vancouver Public Schools apologizes to former student unlawfully restrained

Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 10:13 AM PST
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VANCOUVER, Wash. (KPTV) - Vancouver Public Schools is apologizing to a student and his mother after an internal investigation found a district resource officer used a banned restraint hold on a middle-schooler in two separate incidents this past fall.

LeAnn Slagle told FOX 12 the resource officer pinned down her 12-year-old special-needs son, Mark Slagle, who attended Gaiser Middle School until she withdrew him from the district following the second incident in October.

Slagle filed a complaint with Washington state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which is now investigating the case.

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According to Slagle, District Resource Officer Jess Pritchard injured Mark during an incident in late September and in a second incident less than a week later in early October.

“It makes me mad,” Slagle said in an interview with FOX 12 in December. “It hurts my heart. Mark went through a lot.”

Slagle said her son came home in September with black eyes and had a busted lip in October. She said Mark also sustained a sprained back.

It’s unclear exactly how Mark ended up with the injuries.

FOX 12 reviewed case reports in both incidents involving Mark and Pritchard, which show Pritchard got involved after Mark was physically fighting with other students.

The first time, after another kid knocked Mark’s headphones down and threatened to hit him with a hammer.

The second altercation was captured on school surveillance camera, and according to records, stemmed from a fight spurred after another child hit a bag of chips out of Mark’s hand.

Both reports, written by Pritchard, describe how the officer held Mark down by sitting or lying down on top of the boy.

After the incident in the classroom, Pritchard wrote in his report, “I held Mark down with my chest on his back for around 20 minutes, finally Mark calmed down and I was able to let him go.”

Staff witnesses also reported Pritchard using a “prone” restraint on Mark, but in at least one of the cases, involved employees praised Pritchard’s response in emailed witness reports, writing that Mark was trying to hit employees, resist restraints and even grab Pritchard’s taser and handcuffs while he was on the ground.

Slagle filed a report with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office following the incident in October, but records show deputies declined to pursue charges, citing a lack of evidence in the case.

Slagle said she doesn’t condone her son fighting in school – and she says Mark’s disabilities can make him prone to behavioral problems and outbursts -- but she’s still angry about her son’s treatment.

“It doesn’t constitute anybody to do that to a child,” Slagle said. “I have seen my son restrained numerous times. I’ve had to restrain him too, at certain times, but he’s never injured. He never has black eyes; he never has a busted mouth.”

The restraints in question are no longer allowed for special education students in Washington public schools – banned by lawmakers in 2021 -- with specific rules saying students cannot be held down on the back or stomach, what’s known as “prone” and “supine” holds.

“We know through research, and other states that have banned the practice, that it’s pretty clear these are high-risk interventions that can cause injury to both adults and students,” said Lee Collyer, OSPI’s director of School Health and Safety.

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Collyer declined to comment directly on Mark’s case but did tell FOX 12 that about 90 percent of restraints in Washington’s public schools involve students with disabilities.

“There are ongoing concerns and practices that are happening that involve restraint, frequently,” Collyer said.

Slagle said her concern and anger only grew when she learned more about Pritchard’s background.

The former Skyview High wrestling coach made headlines a year ago, after he was arrested for felony assault and domestic violence. Investigators said he punched his teenage son, breaking the boy’s nose.

Pritchard ended up pleading guilty to fourth-degree assault in October and was sentenced to a year in jail, but he only served a few days behind bars.

After his arrest, Pritchard was fired from his coaching position, but never lost his resource officer job with the district and was subsequently moved from Skyview High to Gaiser Middle School, where he’s now worked ever since.

“I just couldn’t believe it, that he was still employed there, after assaulting a minor,” Slagle said. “If I have any child crimes -- at all -- on my history, I can’t volunteer at a school, but he’s working around our kids.”

Pritchard declined FOX 12′s request for an interview, referring us to the district instead.

A district spokeswoman said Pritchard was “disciplined” after his assault conviction, but district leaders were not required by law to fire him.

As for the banned holds, public records reveal Vancouver Public Schools investigated the cases involving Mark and determined Pritchard did violate district policies and state law when holding Mark down, all of which are outlined in a letter sent by the district to the Washington state Office of Superintendent.

The district letter, written in January, admits fault, saying, “The DRO who restrained the student engaged in ‘prohibited practices’ by using prone and supine restraints.”

The letter was “acknowledging the violations” and “apologizing to the student and parent.”

However, the district also denied that the officer caused Mark any physical injury or inability to breathe and maintained that restraining Mark was “appropriate and necessary due to the imminent risk of harm” to himself and others.

Vancouver Public Schools officials declined to do an interview with FOX 12 but said Pritchard remained on the job during its investigation.

A district ‘Use of Force Review Board’ documented Pritchard’s violations, concluding its investigation by sending the findings to the district’s Department of Human Resources for further consideration.

Slagle said no matter the outcome, an apology is not enough for her; she wants Pritchard fired and she’s keeping Mark out of the district.

“I just feel safer with him at home,” Slagle said. “I know academically he’ll do his best.”

In response to OSPI’s investigation, the district wrote in the letter that it is proposing new training for its district resource officers, including on banned restraints.

The district asked OSPI for help to find a trainer to lead the program.