Yesterday I wrote about a Monroe County, Louisiana teacher duct-taping a six-year-old boy with special needs to his chair — unfortunately, here’s another report about teachers treating students with special needs inappropriately and even bullying them.
Last spring, an Ohio mother had her teenage daughter with special needs wear a wire to record abusive comments made to her by classroom staff in a resource room. Over a period of four days, aide Kelly Chaffins told the student that she was “dumb” and a “liar” and said “No wonder you don’t have any friends.” Chaffins also mocked the student’s physical appearance:
“Don’t you want to get rid of that belly?…Go for a walk. Do you know how to? You are just lazy and your family is lazy.”
Classroom teacher Christie Wilt, who had taught for seven years at Miami Trace Middle School in Washington Courthouse, Ohio, was also recorded “order[ing]” the student to walk on the treadmill. After 15 minutes, the treadmill broke; the student was then told to run in place, says Brian Garvine, a lawyer for the student’s family.
Last month, the Miami Trace Local School District was ordered to pay $300,000 to the mother of the student for the bullying by school staff. Chaffins resigned after the tapes came to light and Wilt, who is currently on maternity leave, has agreed to receive eight hours of training about bullying and recognizing child abuse. Miami Trace superintendent says that, as soon as evidence emerged about the abusive comments, the school district took action. But Garvine expressed dismay that Wilt is still employed:
Garvine said it was “shocking” that Wilt still had a job. “Chaffins is much worse, but Wilt participated,” he said. The lawyer for Wilt and Chaffins could not immediately be reached for comment.
Roberts acknowledged that Wilt had said “some inappropriate things” and had used the words “liar” and “fat” when speaking to the child. “In any context we cannot accept that.”
Students with special needs can often have difficulties communicating; due to such speech and communication challenges, people may (sadly) too often be in the habit of not believing what a child says. My 14-year-old son Charlie is autistic and minimally verbal and doesn’t have enough language to tell us about what goes on in his classroom. We rely on teacher’s reports to know what happened. We might see changes in Charlie’s behavior if something troubled him at school, but he would not be able to get the details. Indeed, in 2008, one mother of an autistic boy Stefan Ferrari, sewed a microphone into his shirt after suspecting that he was abused in his Atlanta classroom. Stefan’s teacher, Sherri Jones, has been charged with making abusive comments. Stefan had been physically abused — he had bruises on his legs — but while Judge John Gatto ruled that he had been hit by an adult at the school, who was responsible for the abuse has yet to be determined. Jones herself has denied physically abusing Stefan.
Without the wire or the tape, the abuse that the Ohio teenager and Stefan Ferrari endured would most likely not have been brought to light. In other cases, staff members have reported instances of abuse of students with disabilities by other staff members but without actual evidence, such claims can be difficult to substantiate. Certainly it’s not a good work environment, not to mention a poor learning environment, if staff are watching other staff for signs of inappropriate behavior. In the case of the 6-year-old Louisiana boy, his mother only learned of the duct-taping from the local newspaper.
In the wake of the abuse of Stefan Ferrari, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue called for the creation of a new statewide policy about reporting abuse. This is a good start, but what school districts and school staff need most of all to do is be pro-active and make it clear that, however little students with disabilities might be able to communicate and might seem to understand, it goes without saying that they must be taught and treated at all times with recognition of their dignity and comprehension. Those who do not understand this need to think twice about saying they can teach students with disabilities, or teach at all.
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