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Manslaughter at a State School

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More sad evidence this week that reforming the troubled Texas state school system — the 13 large institutions for the mentally disabled — will be a long, difficult job.

A former employee at the Lubbock State School was indicted on Tuesday on manslaughter charges. A direct care worker named Doneil Smith allegedly killed a 45 year old resident. Smith allegedly suffocated the resident to death.

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal has more details:

The medical examiner’s office ruled Nicholson died of suffocation during a struggle.

The autopsy report cited information from investigative reports which stated that Nicholson was on a mattress with someone lying over his upper torso when he died.

Lilly Nicholson told the A-J in August that several state school employees caused his death while trying to dress him.

She said her son suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder and refused to dress while his clothes were being washed.

The Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS), the state agency that oversees state schools, has fired Smith and five other employees at the Lubbock facility, according to the paper.

As you may know, state schools have endured well-documented problems in recent years. (You can read our story on the facilities here.)

The Legislature passed several state school reform bills last session, including a 12-percent funding increase for the chronically underfunded institutions. (You can read our coverage of the reforms here.)

I should note that lawmakers did change the name of these facilities. They’re not longer state schools. They’re “state supported living centers.”

But lawmakers ignore one major issue: They didn’t increase the salaries for state school workers, who are among the lowest paid state employees.

Caring for the mentally disabled is a demanding, difficult job, and only certainl individuals are cut out for it.

But the $8-an-hour starting salary is why the Lubbock State School — now called the Lubbock State Supported Living Center — wound up with someone like Doneil Smith caring for a vulnerable patient with mental retardation.

It’s worth noting that this incident happened in June, before the recently passed reforms took full effect.

But the incident shows it will take a lot more than a name change to fix these facilities, and without the pay increase, it’s not clear that conditions will improve.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.