Exclusive: Disabled students allege physical abuse at HCED campuses

ABC-East and ABC-West. Together, critics describe them as the "black hole" of public education in greater Houston.

They are heavily secure campuses operated by the Harris County Department of Education where local school districts assign special needs students they choose not to contend with, at a price of up to $23,000 per pupil, per year.

In recent weeks, former students and their parents have stepped forward with claims of "educator-on-child" violence.

"They would put their knee under my arm and it would hurt really bad and I would like beg them and scream to stop over and over again and they just didn't care," said Grayson Campbell, a former student at ABC-West.

Two years ago Campbell was sent by Tomball ISD to ABC-West.

He says intimidation and staff-on-student physical restraint occurred on a routine basis.

"A whole lot. Just about every day. Not just with me, it was with a lot of other kids," said Campbell.

Arturo Martinez, who spent five years at the ABC-East campus, tells a similar story.

"He put his elbow against the back of my neck right here and started banging my face against the floor," said Martinez.

"They are supposed to be safe with the teachers and they are getting abused by them," said Jessica Rodriguez Morales, Arturo's mother.

Both Grayson and Arturo say students with the deepest intellectual challenges were the most frequent targets of physical force.

"With them it was really bad," said Campbell.

"There's no reason to hit a child. A grown man to put his hands on a child, trying to hurt them. There's no reason for that," added Martinez.

They are serious allegations and come in the wake of abuse charges leveled by Melissa Johnson who says her 20-year-old Autistic son Evan was brutalized by educators at ABC-West last November.

"The over-use of physical violence and restraint and seclusion, student injuries, the lack of academic instruction, the warehousing of students, the lack of progress. It's very concerning," said Shiloh Carter, an attorney with Disability Rights who represents Johnson, Campbell and Martinez.

HCDE Superintendent James Colbert insists his behavioral campuses offer quality academics and guidance delivered by skilled educators who genuinely care about kids with severe challenges.

"We go above and beyond to provide all the necessary support, both technology and staff to be able to support our students. I love the staff that we have and they are well trained, but they are not perfect and we are trying to be perfect and it takes sometimes for things to happen to seek out the teachable moments, but we are not trying to hurt any child whatsoever," said Colbert.

And there are ABC parents like Chari Cotlar who support both the institution and its methods.

"I love that school. I don't know what I would have done without that school," says Cotlar who insists her disabled son has thrived at ABC-West.

So who exactly holds the Harris County Department of Education accountable?

FOX 26 has learned that while the Texas Education Agency oversees nearly every campus in the Lone Star State, ABC-West and East have somehow avoided the scrutiny of its regulators.

"TEA has confirmed that it has never visited the campuses. It's never collected data. It's never interviewed any staff there. That it has failed to monitor it completely," said Carter.

HCDE's Superintendent says transparency is both his organization's aim and practice.

"There is no smoke and mirrors here. We are not trying to hide anything. We are trying to support our local ISD'S with their special needs students. We have zero to hide, nothing to hide whatsoever," said Colbert who has the support of multiple school districts in the Houston area.

FOX 26 has learned the TEA has launched an internal investigation seeking to learn how and why the ABC campuses have not drawn the same state scrutiny as delivered to other public schools.