Routt County judge rejects Alford plea in case involving endangerment of at-risk person

A judge has denied a request for an Alford plea in the case of a former paraprofessional who, on Monday, pleaded guilty to endangering an at-risk victim. 

The incident occurred on Jan. 31 and involved accusations that Sylvia Rawlings mishandled a disabled, nonverbal student’s wheelchair at Steamboat Springs High School, resulting in a fall. According to the arrest affidavit, Rawlings had been advised by a coworker two months prior to the incident that it was unsafe to push the wheelchair in such a manner.

With the acceptance of her guilty plea, Rawlings was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation, intensive mental health treatment and 20 hours of community service. Routt County Judge Erin Wilson requested that Rawlings’ community service be completed within the first six months of her probation. 

The denial of Rawlings’ attempt to enter an Alford plea, which works like a guilty plea but allows defendants to maintain their innocence, followed testimony from two people urging the judge to do so.

One of the people who spoke was the mother of the victim who said, “an Alford plea is an insult to my family.” The mother described how the incident has had major impacts on her family, as she and her son are now in therapy because of the event.

“My family is currently suffering,” the mother said.

More testimony came from Pete Wood, a member of the Steamboat Special Education Advisory Committee, who said he was there to represent the committee, parents of special needs students and general education parents, as well as the victim and her family.

“What happened was unthinkable,” Wood said. “A vulnerable, nonverbal and defenseless child was placed in the care and trust of Sylvia Rawlings, who had allegedly received many warnings about her careless behavior.” 

Wood detailed how the victim is the child of immigrants who came to this country for freedom and more opportunity in hope of giving their family a better life. Wood also spoke to the school district’s mission to be diverse, equitable and inclusive.

“For our most vulnerable citizens, children with disabilities or minority children with disabilities, this case shows we’re failing,” Wood said. “Terms like diversity, equity and inclusion mean nothing when there’s no justice.”

Judge Wilson told the courtroom she was the judge who reviewed the arrest warrant application and authorized the warrant to be issued. She noted that she has not seen the video of the incident but she has read the arrest affidavit, which includes a description of what occurred between Rawlings and the victim.

“The affidavit does talk about the fact that Ms. Rawlings had previously received warnings from school district personnel about the manner in which she conducted herself,” Judge Wilson said. “It fairly graphically described what occurred (and) the injuries suffered. For those reasons, I am going to deny the request to accept the plea as an Alford plea.”

As Wilson issued her decision, she said it was not lost on her that Rawlings has shown remorse.

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