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Family Wins Lawsuit Against School . . . Jury Awards More Than $300,000

By Chris Stirewalt, Daily Mail

It took state and federal judges two years to decide if a Mingo County family's claim that their autistic son had been abused had merit.

It took a Kanawha County jury two hours to reach the same conclusion.

A $338,928 verdict was returned by jurors in the case of Ronnie Lee Spaulding -- an 11-year-old mentally handicapped boy who was strapped to his desk by teachers.

Jurors agreed Monday evening that Spaulding had been mistreated and neglected while in the special education programs at two Mingo County grade schools, Williamson Elementary and Lenore Elementary.

Specifically, they determined that Spaulding's teachers, aides and administrators had committed assault and battery, violated the boy's human rights and provided negligent supervision. Jurors also provided cash awards for the Spaulding family's pain and suffering.

The victim's father, Ron Spaulding Sr., was awarded $50,000 for the impact on his sexual relationship with his wife because she was "totally obsessed" with her son's plight.

The victim's mother, Kathy Spaulding, was awarded $138,928 for lost wages and emotional damages.

Another $100,000 of the verdict was earmarked as punitive damages, meant to punish the school board, administrators and teachers for their behavior.

Beverly Selby, who made closing arguments for the plaintiffs, urged jurors to not only help the Spaulding family, but to also "send a strong message that this kind of thing will not be tolerated."

"That's how you tell them (the defendants) -- we don't like this and you'd better not do it again," Selby said.

"He was strapped to a chair because he was handicapped, he was strapped to a chair because they (the defendants) thought they could get away with it," she added.

Defense attorney Robert Kent, who rested his case after calling only one witness, told the jury that he had not done more in his defense because the plaintiffs "did not make their case."

He asked jurors in his closing arguments why the family did not better document their son's injuries with photographs.

He also alluded to problems in the Spaulding home that may have caused Ronnie Lee Spaulding's decline in attitude and behavior.

Selby, when she finished her remarks, left jurors with the device that was used to strap her client, then in preschool and kindergarten, to his chair. It is called the "Love Bug.'

"Would you like that?" she asked, holding it up.
 
[AND THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY]

Autism Expert Testifies In Abuse Case Against W.V. School Board

By Chris Stirewalt Daily Mail.

When a plaintiff in a civil case can get one of the world's leading experts in a relevant field to testify on his behalf, it's a coup.

When that expert lives only an hour away and renders her services without being paid, it's more like a miracle.

Ruth Sullivan, a national expert on autism and the mother of the man on whom Dustin Hoffman based his character in the movie "Rain Man," was in Charleston, West Virginia Wednesday to testify on behalf of Ronnie Lee Spaulding.

Spaulding's parents have been in court for the last two years in their suit against the Mingo County Board of Education for allegedly abusing their son. The chief claim from the Spaulding family is that teachers strapped their son into his chair with a harness.

The case has been bouncing around from federal court to the state Supreme Court to circuit court and is only now being heard by a jury. The family alleges that in his years in Mingo County's special education program, Spaulding was usually either being mistreated or simply ignored.

Sullivan, a Huntington resident who runs a center for the mentally handicapped and autistic, was on the stand in Judge Herman Canady's courtroom to offer her expert opinion about the use of such a "mechanical restraint" on an autistic child like Spaulding.

Her disgust with the use of such a device, especially if other options like simply holding the child weren't at least attempted, was clearly evident from the witness stand.

"You just wouldn't do it. I can think of very few, very rare, situations in which it would be acceptable to restrain a child in that fashion," Sullivan said.

The defense team for the school system has claimed that Spaulding enjoyed being bound to his chair, and that it was often used to help him feel comfortable about not falling out of his chair.

Sullivan dismissed such applications of the harness, based on her own experience and her interviews with Spaulding.

Defense attorneys questioned whether Sullivan was familiar with the specifics of Ronnie Lee Spaulding's education and development. They also raised questions about the general relevance of her testimony, pointing out that she was not an expert on education but rather autism.

It took one of Spaulding's attorneys, Bev Selby, 20 minutes just to work through the high points of Sullivan's resume.

A doctorate, countless awards, national boards, her thriving center in Huntington and several books were all laid out before jurors -- as was Sullivan's Hollywood pedigree.

"Well, after all that, I don't know what more to say," Selby said with a shrug.

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