Content Note: Ableism, Restraint, Abuse, Neglect, PWD Death
Image Description: Small, lit, white candle held in someone’s cupped hands lights the darkness.
When I was in school to become a Developmental Services Worker, which is the certification most preferred by the Ontario government for those who work in support positions with intellectually disabled people, the curriculum didn’t include Crisis Prevention Institute’s Non-Violent Crisis Invention certification that most agencies required in staff at the time. The school I attended didn’t believe in the NVCI certification; its philosophy was that workers should absorb any violence directed at them by the people they supported.
I argued with my teachers about this; I didn’t think it was fair to potentially many people, depending on the circumstance. I had a rock-solid belief, supported by the NCVI philosophy, that restraint should be a last-resort measure. But I also wanted to be sure that if I found myself in a situation where a person I was supporting was agitated and at risk of hurting self, others, or me, that I had the tools to effectively de-escalate the situation, and if a restraint (or hold, as NCVI calls it) was the tool that was necessary — well, that was regrettable, because the situation ideally should been escalated before it got to that point, but if the person was so out of control that a hold was necessary then the analysis of how we got there could wait, because the safety of everyone involved was at that point the primary consideration.
Which is partly why I was so upset to hear that after being held in restraint on his bus ride home from school last December, 18-year-old autistic youth Anthony Corona died. I didn’t hear about this when it first happened, but it’s come up again recently because the coroner found he died from positional asphyxia — he’d had his head held between his knees for twelve minutes, blocking his airway and circulation, and he died soon after the people restraining him had discovered he’d stopped breathing.
There is no excuse for this.
Corona, who was also intellectually disabled, seemed from accounts to be out of control when he was restrained — he’d thrown a half-full bottle of water at an aide and physically attacked another student. At 5’10” and 190 lbs., he was a large young man, but could have been restrained easily using a two-person NVCI hold, removed from the bus without breaking the hold, and held and periodically repositioned by employees (who could have spelled off by other employees, if necessary) outside the bus until more assistance arrived. He, the employees doing the hold, and anyone else in the area would have been safe, provided that the hold was being done properly by trained individuals.
CPI does not sanction (nor does any other system of behaviour management of which I’ve ever heard) forcing an individual’s head between their knees and holding it there for even ten seconds, let alone twelve minutes. This restraint caused his death by positional asphyxia — and the determination that autism and was a contributing factor needs to be struck from the coroner’s report. Autism is not a lethal condition, and the suggestion that behaviours exhibited by Anthony Corona (ones that the coroner has apparently linked to his autism diagnosis) contributed to his death is ableist victim-blaming.
Shame on the coroner.
I wish that I could see the police report, because several things have struck me as I’ve read media accounts of Anthony Corona’s death and events leading up to it on which I’d like clarification.
Restraint on the Bus
Anthony Corona was “harnessed” into his seat (this account also mentions that he was harnessed) for the two-hour bus trip to and back from Bright Futures Academy each day. Also, school president Becca Colucci said that students are seated on the bus based on their behaviours. Another Bright Futures Academy student on the bus told a reporter from the Press-Enterprise that staff often didn’t secure Anthony in the harness and that he knew how to slip out of it. Becca Colucci corroborated this.
Restraint should always be the last resort. Was a harness and chain (whatever role it played) truly the least restrictive option for bus transport for Anthony, given that it restricted his movement for a total of four hours a day? Was it fair not to give him the choice of with whom he wanted to sit (or at least near?) This institutional approach to transportation practically guarantees behaviour issues in people prone to them, especially given that, as the student mentioned earlier also told the Press-Enterprise reporter, staff generally could be “quite rough” with Anthony and seemed reluctant to deal with him. This points to staff-related issues around Anthony that needed to be addressed, for everyone’s safety, before we even get into what happened on the bus, particularly around putting a safety plan in place for both school and bus.
Anthony Corona’s Safety Plan
Even though Anthony was secured in his seat, if he had a propensity toward behaviour that could put himself and/or other people risk, a safety plan for that contingency should have existed so that in an acting-out episode, all staff know details like what holds are and aren’t authorized, when the bus should be stopped, what the other students should do and who should initiate that, who at the school should be called, etc. — in short, making sure everyone knows their role, has the information they need to perform that role effectively, knows from whom they’re supposed to take instruction, and what the chain of communication is. If they can’t get on board with the safety plan, they need to work somewhere else, because these plans exist for a reason: to keep *everyone* safe until the person is under control again.
Apparently a safety plan did exist. We’ll come back to that.
T here were 21 students on the bus the day that Anthony Corona died, with only 2 aides and a driver (even though there can be up to 6 aides on a bus.) Even if Anthony Corona was the only one on the bus whose behaviour the school considered a particular risk (and given that Bright Futures Academy serves “special education students referred by local school districts due to significant behavior challenges”, that’s probably not the case) two aides in this setting isn’t enough. Things must have seem stretched enough that a student felt compelled to intervene when Corona became agitated, which is absolutely inappropriate, and why there should have been enough aides on the bus to both safely de-escalate acting-out behaviour and clear the area to the greatest extent possible. If someone has become violent, other people need to be kept safe as well.
Now, the bus driver pulled over once he realized what was going on, and tried to help. However, it’s difficult to tell from media accounts what he was authorized to do. This article states that “Bright Futures staff were properly trained” before Anthony Corona’s death and subsequent restraint retraining for staff, so we’d expect that the bus driver could help out safely and effectively in this situation. However, the driver told the police that he was “unaware that Corona had a plan to control his behaviour” Also, when the driver pushed Corona’s head between his knees, he was “trying something that his supervisor said had calmed Corona a few weeks ago”. The supervisor hadn’t reported the incident to the school.
In other words, he tried a new technique that presumably hadn’t been approved for use, with no idea of how it might interfere with what the aides were doing or how it might affect Anthony Corona (and, as a result, the people around him.) The aides let this happen despite knowing (presumably) that the technique wasn’t part of the safety plan.
For twelve minutes. This wasn’t a mistake that happened because someone made the wrong decision in a moment of panic. There was plenty of time to deliberate on whether they were doing the right thing, and they continued to use a technique that they must have known wasn’t approved.
As history professor and disability activist David Perry pointed out, it wasn’t so long ago that Ethan Saylor and Eric Garner died for the same reason that Anthony Corona did —positional asphyxia. No trained person should have forgotten so soon that some restraint positions can be lethal.
When you get right down it, no trained person should figure that it’s safe to keep someone’s head pushed between their knees for twelve minutes. Shame on them and the people who “trained” them.
Shame On All of Them
The institutional practices, lack of coordination, and the assumptions both underlying and arising from both aren’t things that can just be apologized away, nor totally solved by the seat belt clips that the school bought to transport students more securely. Shame on Becca Colucci, for thinking that Bright Futures Academy’s “deepest sympathy” to the family and retraining in restraint for all bus staff are enough to address this. Apologies barely sufficed when an autistic student with epilepsy had a seizure and seriously burned his leg after allegedly being left unattended by Bright Futures Academy staff in 2015. When a vulnerable person that parents have in the care of your school dies at the hands of your staff (Colucci even told police that she didn’t believe that Anthony Corona was restrained correctly), retraining staff in restraint is only part of the answer — and the tip of the iceberg, really, because restraint should always be the last resort. Another part of it is the person in charge having the decency to resign.
And shame on the California Department of Education for not making Becca Colucci do it. Anthony Corona may have not have been someone that some aides at Bright Futures Academy wanted to deal with, but to his grandmother and aunts he was a family member.
Anthony Corona’s “crime” would have gotten a non-disabled student removed from the bus and bus privileges suspended for a period, or perhaps suspension from school depending on the severity of the fight with the other student; at the very worst, the police would have been called, but it’s unlikely that charges would have been made.
Corona, however, a young, intellectually disabled, autistic man, died.
Something to think about as we start Autism Awareness Month.
Rest in peace, Anthony Corona.