Late change sends plea deal back to drawing board for former paraprofessional accused of mishandling disabled student |

Late change sends plea deal back to drawing board for former paraprofessional accused of mishandling disabled student

A paraprofessional accused of mishandling a disabled student appeared in Routt County court for a plea hearing on Tuesday, May 16, that has now been rescheduled to May 22 due to a change in the plea agreement put forth by her defense attorney.

Sylvia Rawlings faces charges after an alleged incident that occurred on Jan. 31 and involved accusations that Rawlings, a former paraprofessional at Steamboat Springs High School, mishandled a disabled, nonverbal student’s wheelchair, resulting in a fall. Rawlings allegedly had been advised by a coworker two months prior to the incident that it was unsafe to push the wheelchair in such a manner.

Prosecutor Zachary Rosen and Defense Attorney Randy Salky came to an agreement that Rawlings would accept a guilty plea and be sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation, intensive mental health treatment and 20 hours of community service. With this agreement, Rawlings would have faced one count of neglect of an at-risk person, and two other charges would have been dropped.

The change that rescheduled the hearing: A last-minute clarification sought by Rawlings’ defense attorney that she would be entering an Alford plea. 

Under an Alford plea, a defendant is allowed to accept guilt for a charge while maintaining his or her innocence for the same offense. It is also known as a “best-interests plea.” 

The prosecutor was not made aware of this clarification in advance. A major distinction between a guilty plea and an Alford plea is an Alford plea gives the defendant the advantage of not being stopped from denying fault in a civil action based upon the same fact.

Rawlings’ lawyer said he went for the Alford plea because this case could result in the filing of civil action against his client.

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Rosen told the judge that the prosecution did not support this modification in the agreement and was looking for a guilty plea based on the facts of the case. Because the lawyers were not on the same page regarding the specifics, Judge Erin Wilson could not accept the plea agreement in its current form. 

The parent of the at-risk student appeared before the court to give a tearful testimony. She detailed a meeting with the principal of the school and said Rawlings showed an attitude of indifference when watching the tapes of the incident recorded by cameras in the gym.

“Watching those six videos was horrific; my child is still suffering,” the parent said. 

The parent noted that she did not wish suffering upon Rawlings, but the parent said she felt she had to stand up for her child. 

Rosen touched on the importance of special educators in the community, noting it was one of the most important jobs. “It is not a job Rawlings was or is qualified to have, as evidenced by the multiple opportunities she had to recognize the risks and how she interacted with her victim,” Rosen said.

The group is now scheduled to appear in Routt County Court again on Monday, May 22, to make another attempt at a plea agreement.

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