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Restraints Leading to Autistic Boy’s Death Investigated

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Times Staff Writer

The slender retarded boy started misbehaving on the bus last Thursday morning, and when he finally got to his classroom at Gill Education Center, he went wild, scratching, screaming, pushing. So, police said, his teacher swathed his hands in socks to keep him from scratching, tied a diaper around his head to limit his vision, rolled him in an exercise mat and sat on him.

But while he was on the floor, Barth Pico stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead three days later, and Huntington Beach police are now investigating his death.

The methods Pico’s teacher used to restrain the boy are sanctioned under very strict guidelines, but “we can say right now that there are problems with this particular incident in the method of use of the restraints,” Lt. James Walker said. “Obviously, something went wrong.”

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No charges have been filed in the boy’s death, but Huntington Beach detectives, the State Police, Fairview Developmental Center and the Orange County Department of Education are working together to discover what went wrong.

Pico, who was autistic and had a low IQ, apparently began misbehaving Thursday during the 9 a.m. bus ride from Fairview, the state hospital facility in Costa Mesa where he lived, to Gill, a county education center in Huntington Beach, where he went to school.

“He was throwing feces about, smearing it on the other kids and on himself,” Walker said. “When they got to the school, he was screaming, pushing. He did push some furniture around. He did inflict a minor injury on the teacher--a scratch. He did inflict injury on another child--a minor cut.”

During Pico’s tantrum, his teacher attempted to restrain him with the socks, diaper and mat. While being restrained, he was asphyxiated, according to the coroner.

Police are withholding the teacher’s identity pending the conclusion of the investigation. Although Gill is a county facility, the teacher is a state worker, employed by Fairview.

When school officials and Huntington Beach paramedics failed to revive the boy by using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, he was taken to Humana Hospital in Westminster. Pico was kept alive on a respirator until doctors pronounced him dead last Sunday. He had been pronounced “brain dead” Friday evening.

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Policea Called Friday

Huntington Beach police were not called about the boy’s condition until 9 p.m. Friday, which is part of the problem surrounding the investigation, Walker said.

“The doctor was not aware of the circumstances surrounding the death until . . . another school employee told him,” Walker said. “Once he learned of the circumstances, he immediately notified (the Department of) Social Services and us. That’s part of the overall problem, the misinformation.”

Officials are investigating whether undue force was used in restraining Pico. They are also trying to determine whether proper guidelines were followed in restraining the boy.

“The problem is with the procedures used, period, all of them together,” Walker said. “Matting (rolling a child in an exercise mat) is one of the more extreme measures used. It takes certain types of approval for other than emergency situations. We’re dealing here with a 70-pound boy, slight for a 14-year-old.”

Handling of Patients

Hugh Kohler, Fairview director, said police have investigated his institution’s restraint policies, “talked with the clinic director and learned how we manage maladaptive behavior. Now they’ll be looking into the county school district’s policies.”

Lynn Hartline, assistant superintendent of the county Education Department refused to comment on the investigation. Pico’s parents have requested anonymity, police officials said, and have not hired a lawyer to represent them. They could not be reached for comment.

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