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APD concludes ‘no criminal offense was violated’ in investigation into Will Rogers HUGS program

Sierra Rains
srains@ardmoreite.com
A photo of the outer door to the HUGS office located towards the back of Will Rogers Elementary School.

The Ardmore Police Department has wrapped up an investigation into the HUGS program at Will Rogers Elementary School.  

The investigation was launched after the parent of a 5-year-old autistic child contacted police in late September with concerns that her child was being mistreated by staff. APD Capt. Claude Henry said the department takes these types of allegations very seriously and conducted a detailed investigation. “We firmly believe that the safety of children is of the utmost importance,” Henry said. 

However, investigators reportedly were not able to find any criminal offense that had been violated. The report will be sent over to the district attorney’s office for review. 

“We do have a duty and a regard that whenever these investigations show that the allegations are not what they were reported, we send these types of investigations to the district attorney’s office for review so he can review it and make sure that all bases are covered in the criminal procedure,” Henry said. 

The mother of the child, Caden Ingram, said her 5-year-old son had only been attending Will Rogers Elementary and HUGS, the school’s after-school day care program, for about a month and had already encountered problems where he reportedly feared going to school. 

“I’ve been having conversations with Will Rogers since the very first day that I went. They’ve been having a hard time dealing with that (my son) is autistic. And the very first day that I ever met the director of HUGS, she let me know that my child was acting out,” Ingram said, adding that the director allegedly stated that she did not have the time or equipment to teach a “retarded child.” 

Ardmore City Schools provides a building and funding for the HUGS program, but does not run the program. Suzanne Sweeten, Director of the HUGS program, declined to comment on the incident and the program’s policies for children with disabilities. 

“I’m not going to be able to speak about the incident or the child. We’re not allowed to do that,” Sweeten said. “All I can really tell you is that it was looked into and it was unsubstantiated and really that’s the end of it as far as we are concerned.” 

Ardmore City Schools Superintendent Kim Holland said the school system is not legally responsible for the HUGS program, but does feel a responsibility to address any allegations of students being mistreated, and takes those situations very seriously. 

“We feel some responsibility to see that our kids are taken care of and sometimes the reports are inaccurate and sometimes they aren’t,” Holland said. “It’s nothing that we take lightly and if something was done incorrectly there I would love to know about it so we can fix it for the future.” 

Towards the end of September, Ingram said she received a call from the school at around 3:20 p.m. letting her know that her son was having a hard time transitioning to HUGS. Ingram said she was told four teachers had grabbed her son to try to get him to go to HUGS. 

“My child is going to freak out because he doesn’t know what’s going on, there’s four strangers, he’s autistic, and there’s four strangers grabbing ahold of him and trying to take him to a place that he doesn’t want to go at this point,” Ingram said, adding that she did not want anyone handling her son physically.

Holland said the school system ensures that all teachers, and their aides, are trained on how to restrain a child in a non-harmful way if the need arises. “Policies are adapted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education as well as the state itself,” he said. 

Ingram said she was told that she needed to pick her child up and she drove to the school. According to Ardmore police, investigators spoke with the director and the assistant director of the HUGS program to get a better understanding of how the situation was handled. 

“We understand that the child was placed into the office because the child was throwing an uncontrollable fit at the time and the employees of the HUGS program had to take into consideration the safety of the other children that were attending the program as well,” Henry said. 

When Ingram arrived, she was told that her son was at HUGS. However, he was not out playing with the other children. He was in the office, which she said looked like a closet. 

“I walked in there and my son was laying on the bare floor crying and he didn’t even notice that I came in,” Ingram said. “His eyes were all the way down, his head was on the ground. He was really upset. He said ‘Mama!’ and he just started crying, saying they were really mean.” 

During the police investigation, Henry said officers were shown the room the child was placed in. 

“Through our investigation it was evident that the child was not placed in a closet,” Henry said. “It was a rather large room and there are no adjacent smaller rooms that are tied into this office space.”

Ingram said her son has a hard time understanding and communicating and she was dismayed that he was isolated from the other kids who were playing. Ingram also alleged that her autistic son is bullied by other children and teachers. 

“All I could say to (the director) was ‘How can you possibly do this?’ I was balling my eyes out,” Ingram said. “It’s really hard to walk in on something like that and having to deal with this. This is his first time going to school and I never thought it would be anything like this.”

After making a social media post about the incident, she said other parents have reached out to her with similar stories of children with disabilities having problems in local schools. In 2016, the parents of a child described as autistic and mostly nonverbal filed a federal lawsuit against Ardmore City Schools alleging that their child was abused at Charles Evans Elementary. 

The lawsuit alleged that school staff had openly mocked the child, isolated the child from peers in a “sensory room” while the student was at school, and locked the student in a closet, among other things. 

The Ardmore Board of Education approved a compromise settlement with the family in 2018. Holland became superintendent after former superintendent Sonny Bates’ departure in 2016. 

“I got in on the end of that and what I did when I got here is I felt like part of the problem was the paperwork and not educating teachers on how to deal with certain issues,” Holland said. Since then, Holland said the school system has developed a set of policies to help provide the best possible education and accommodations for children with disabilities. 

This includes 504 plans, which are formal plans that schools develop to give children with disabilities the support they need, no matter their condition, and individualized education programs for children with special needs. Holland said a specialist examines the school’s 504 plans, IEP's and policies to make sure everything is up to date each year. Teachers also receive training on how to interact with children with disabilities. 

“It’s a state and federal requirement, but it’s also a responsibility of the school district to do all they can to support the parents and the kids as they’re dealing with their condition as well as trying to give them a good education,” Holland said. 

Ingram said she has pulled her son out of the school and he is currently being homeschooled while on an emergency list to get into a school specifically for autistic children. Ingram said her son’s well-being was impacted by the situation, and she will be seeking legal counsel to further pursue the case. 

“I’ve never seen him so exhausted, tired and stressed out, I’ve never seen him like this,” Ingram said. “He is autistic, he is 5, he didn’t deserve it. It’s not his fault — it’s not his fault that he was born this way and nobody should make it feel like it was his fault or anything.”