A Congressman's Son, A Special-Needs School, And A Lawsuit

It was November 2007, and Carrie Spitler, a teacher for the Tuttle special-needs program at Houston's Briarwood School, was with her class on a field trip when suddenly a 17-year-old student, 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, struck Spitler in the head with a rock. The student then began beating her in the face with his fists until she nearly lost consciousness, likely permanently damaging her neck and spine.

It might make sense that the other teachers there would call the police, an ambulance, somebody. But no. The school called no one and did not help tend to Spitler's injuries. Instead, Becah Butler, then-head of the Tuttle school, allegedly told Spitler to drive her students back to class on the school bus, saying Spitler should expect such things to happen and that they are simply "a part of the job." After all, this wasn't your typical student. He was the son of a former U.S. Congressman.

That's all according to a lawsuit Spitler recently filed in Harris County District Court against the Briarwood School. She claims that for years school officials knew about and compiled a documented history of the boy threatening and assaulting students and teachers, but did nothing about it. Nothing, Spitler's lawyer Scott Lemond says, except put the 27-year-old special-ed teacher on indefinite leave without pay, a status which remains to this day.

"He hit her with such force," says Lemond, "that he made the spinal bones in her neck curve toward the front of her body. It was close to being a break."

The attorney for the Briarwood School, Corey Devine, declined to comment.

Late last year, Spitler filed a pre-lawsuit motion requesting to take the deposition of Butler. This, Lemond, says, was an attempt to research whether there was enough evidence to pursue a formal lawsuit. He says Butler confirmed that she knew about the past threats and violence and confirmed that the school "did nothing to discipline the student or get him help."

Thus, the lawsuit.

According to the complaint, Butler herself had referred to the student as schizophrenic and in need of psychiatric help. His homeroom teacher, it states, had said that she was "so afraid of the student that she often suffered nightmares about the student attacking her." Starting in September 2007, two months before the alleged attack, Spitler claims, the student would approach her and say "Fuck you," call her a "bitch" and threaten to "kick [her] ass." When, Spitler claims, she told Butler about the threats, Butler made fun of the student's behavior and belittled Spiter in front of other teachers.

"I think part of what's going on here," says Lemond, is that "there's a certain amount of prestige with being able to tell new parents and prospective students, 'Hey look, our clientele includes the sons and daughters of business people, doctors, lawyers, we even have the son of a Congressman here.' And by taking this person out of school they lose the ability to market to a particular segment of the population and I think that's perhaps what's driving some of these decisions."

The bottom line, says Lemond, is that "He did assault other people. It's been documented, along with threats of violence. They knew something was wrong, they just didn't act."

Lemond says that the student's father served in Congress sometime prior to the 1990, but will not say who the family is to protect the son from embarrassment.

Today Spitler is enrolled in a Ph.D program for education, says Lemond. She suffers severe headaches and has pain in her neck, he says. She is suing for more than $1.3 million in medical expenses and damages.

The Briarwood School, according to its website, "is an independent, non-profit, co-educational day school for children with learning differences."

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Chris Vogel
Contact: Chris Vogel