Teen with autism who attacked teacher’s aide faces sentencing

Posted at 10:51 AM, May 2, 2024 and last updated 12:32 PM, May 6, 2024

FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. (Court TV/Scripps News Tampa) — A Florida high school student with autism who attacked his teacher’s aid was in court on Wednesday for his sentencing hearing.

Brendan Depa was caught on school security cameras chasing down paraprofessional Joan Naydich and beating her unconscious inside Flagler County’s Matanzas High School in February 2023. The trigger, according to Naydich, appeared to be talk of taking away Depa’s Nintendo Switch.

The incident ignited a national debate over the appropriate punishment for a student with special needs, a debate that continued at Depa’s sentencing.

brandon depa appears in court

Brandon Depa appears in court during his sentencing hearing Wednesday, May 2, 2024. (Court TV)

Depa, now 18,­ pleaded no contest in 2023 to one charge of aggravated battery of a school employee. Because Depa was 17 during the incident, Judge Terence Perkins has the option of sentencing Depa as an as adult or a juvenile. If sentenced as an adult, he faces up to 30 years in a state prison. If sentenced as a juvenile, he faces a shorter period in custody that could be served in a less restrictive setting, such as a juvenile detention center.

­­Prosecutors tried to portray Depa’s conduct as deliberate and intentional and not a byproduct of his disabilities, which includes a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Depa’s lawyers claim a series of missteps contributed to the attack. Depa filed a lawsuit against the Flagler County School Board alleging the district failed to respond appropriately to his disabilities, triggers and problem behaviors, leading to the violent incident.

Naydich said she suffered five broken ribs, a concussion, hearing and vision loss as a result of the attack. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and lost a job she loved, she said. Naydich had worked as a paraprofessional for more than a year when the incident occurred. Before that, she worked as a lunch lady in the school district for 18 years.

“My life will never be what it was before,” she said. “Everything was taken away from me that morning. At 10:00 that morning, everything was taken away.”

As a paraprofessional, Naydich assisted the main teacher in Depa’s “self-contained” classroom for student with special needs. Her duties included escorting Depa to general education classes with the rest of the student population and keeping an eye on him in those classes, which is what she was doing before the attack.

Naydich said Depa took out his Nintendo Switch during a cyber security class. She asked him to put it away, which he did, but then he took it out a second time, she said. Naydich relayed the incident over text to Depa’s main teacher in the special needs classroom, Barbara Buchanan. When they returned to his main classroom, Buchanan told Depa he could not use the game system in class anymore, Naydich recalled.

In response, Naydich said Depa cursed and spit at her. “That’s an assault,” Naydich said she told Depa, then picked up her belongings and went for the door. She doesn’t remember what happened next, she said.

Hallway security video – which prosecutors played in the hearing — shows Naydich walking out of the classroom and Depa running after her, pushing her to ground, then kicking and pummeling her. Another video played in court Wednesday showed Depa spitting and screaming at an unconscious Naydich as deputies escorted him past her. “Stupid b***h,” he screamed. “I’m gonna f*****g kill you.”

A forensic psychologist who examined Depa for the state said the attack was “very likely was a manifestation of his emotional behavioral disability,” specifically, his “tendency to overreact aggressively to perceived slights.” However, Dr. Greg Prichard said such “significant aggression” was unusual in people Depa’s age diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, noting they typically learn “new skills for coping” as they get older.

Prichard said Depa’s documented history of ­aggressive behavior went back to when he was 6 or 7 years old. He was homeschooled until age 13, during which time he was “Baker Acted” – or confined involuntarily – on at least four occasions due to violence acts toward relatives or members of the community. His aggressive behavior continued in a group home in South Carolina to which his family sent him when he was 14 and in another group home in Flagler County, which is where Depa resided when the incident occurred. After the attack, Depa was detained in the county jail in seclusion from other inmates, then moved to a general population cell he turned 18 in August 2023.

Over time, Depa’s frequency of aggressive acts went down, “but the intensity of his aggressive response might be getting worse” Prichard said, citing the incident with Naydich and an attack a student on a school bus in November 2021.

When asked if he believes Depa is dangerous, Prichard said, “Yes.” Depa has “a lot of triggers,” Prichard said, including hunger, tiredness, being told “no,” getting in trouble and overstimulation. Prichard agreed with Depa’s lawyer that it was possible to control for them “when we know them.”

Naydich said no one in her chain of command the school made her aware of Depa’s triggers.

Toward the end of Pritchard’s testimony, Judge Perkins asked Prichard how much of Depa’s conduct during the attack was intentional and volitional?

“I think he had more control than he showed,” Perkins said. “I believe that Mr. Depa does have the capacity to control his conduct, certainly better than how he controlled his conduct then.”

Prichard noted he initially thought Depa reacted to his gaming device being taken away. “That’s not what really happened,” Prichard said. “He didn’t like the discussion with Ms. Buchannan” and “it escalated” without the teachers instigating anything.

Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark asked Naydich what she thinks should happen to Depa.

“I think that Brendan should pay for what he did. There are consequences in life to bad actions, bad choices. He made the choice that day to come after me,” Naydich said. “Life is about rules and responsibilities, and nobody is above that. Including Brendan.”

Scripps News Tampa, an E.W. Scripps Company, contributed to this report.


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