Editorials, Opinion

Charges of abuse at North show changes must be made

When charges were leveled against the North Elementary School vice principal for allegedly striking a special needs child in the head, the community was horrified. Little did any of us know that this particular incident would be the least disturbing of the revelations to come out of the school’s special needs classroom. 

Last week, felony charges were filed against the substitute teacher — who was certified, though not in special education — for assaulting two 6-year-olds. In a January incident just three days before the one involving the vice principal, the teacher is seen on surveillance video forcing a student’s hand into a puddle of urine and then wiping his hand on his face, saying “You like that?”  

The police report for a Nov. 16 altercation described the teacher standing on the feet of a student who was kicking her. But the lawsuit filed this week by the boy’s mother details how her son was tormented by the teacher and an aide: The student was taken to an area of the classroom deliberately hidden from the camera’s view, where he was allegedly restrained, physically and verbally assaulted and mocked for his pleas for mercy. 

The past cannot be undone; but changes can be made to prevent something like this from happening in the future. 

Teachers and aides assigned to teach or supervise special needs students should undergo a psychological evaluation before they ever step foot into the classroom. Some people are not mentally and emotionally equipped to handle special needs children. We say this without judgment.  It is not always an issue of certification or training: Some people just don’t have the temperament or disposition to work with children who display nontraditional behaviors and who require nontraditional solutions. 

In addition to an initial psychological evaluation, teachers and aides assigned to special needs classrooms should receive regular check-ins with a psychologist or counselor. Emotional burnout is very real — and even the most even-tempered person has a breaking point. If someone is regularly checking on their mental well-being, a teacher or aide who is nearing their emotional limit can be temporarily reassigned or given a respite before they reach that breaking point and do or say something harmful. 

The incidents at North Elementary also show it is not enough for administrators to review 15 minutes of video every 3 months. While the policy was likely written that way so the mandate wouldn’t be overly burdensome on schools, the policy is ineffective unless someone happens to review the “correct” 15 minutes. 

Instead, administrators should be required to review at least 15 minutes of footage from the special needs classroom every day. This could be done daily (15 minutes a day) or be saved for Friday (15 from each day, for 75 minutes total). 

A better option would be to have the surveillance video run on a live feed, so it can be monitored in real time and/or administrators can do random checks. Ideally, a monitor with the live footage would be stationed where one or more secretaries or administrators could view it but positioned so visitors can’t. The live feed wouldn’t have to be given someone’s undivided attention, but if something did happen, it would likely catch someone’s eye, and they could then report it to be followed up on. The constant monitoring — or at least the option for it — would hopefully dissuade staff from any inappropriate behavior. 

Of course, this idea also requires existing policy and code — like mandatory reporting and no “blind spots” — to be enforced. 

Those in authority must learn from these loopholes and mistakes, and they must make changes. The abuse those children endured cannot be undone, but what happened to them can be a lesson in how to prevent such horrors from happening again. 

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