CHERRY HILL, N.J. – When harsh words flew in a classroom for autistic children here, the school employees who spoke them likely thought no one in authority would ever hear.
"Shut up," shouted one staffer, unaware that a digital recorder was hidden in the pocket of 10-year-old Akian Chaifetz.
"Go ahead and scream because guess what? You're going to get nothing until your mouth is shut.
"Oh Akian, you are a bastard."
But after the boy's father, Stuart Chaifetz, released excerpts of the tape in an online video last week, millions of people learned what was said at the Horace Mann Elementary School.
Now, educators and others are trying to figure out just what the incident means.
"What happened in the classroom is not excusable and should not have happened," Cherry Hill school officials said in a statement Friday. But while vowing to learn from the experience, the officials assert, "We believe this regrettable incident is an anomaly."
Others aren't so sure. They say special-education programs in many communities may lack the support and expertise needed to benefit children with disabilities.
Staffers who abuse special-education students "don't appear to have the skills they need … and clearly don't have the supervision they need," said Brenda Considine, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform.
"It's ironic that this stuff is garnering so much attention because we just passed one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country aimed at stopping kids from bullying one another," said Considine. "Here's clear-cut evidence that (school employees) are engaged in bullying."
The Cherry Hill incident wasn't the first such case in New Jersey.
In Deptford, a 15-year-old special education student made a covert video last year that appeared to show bullying by his teacher. The Gloucester County Special Services District is seeking to dismiss the teacher, who was suspended without pay in November.
And Stuart Chaifetz says he's heard from thousands of concerned parents and bullying victims, "some with special needs," since he posted a YouTube video with excerpts of the recording. The video has drawn more than 3.7 million viewers in the past week.
Chaifetz says people responding to the video include parents "who have suffered and who are in the exact same situation as I am and who are asking for advice on how to put a wire or a digital recorder on their child."
Assemblyman Dave Rible, a Republican from Monmouth who has called for improvements to special education in New Jersey, said he understands the outcry. "No one wants to see their children degraded or hurt."
Rible last week urged legislative action on a measure he's sponsored to create a task force of special-education experts.
"The whole crux of my bill is to examine special education, how we're spending money there and how we can improve it," said Rible. "If we're providing a service, we've got to provide the best possible service."
He and Considine expressed concern that special-education students could suffer as districts seek to cut costs by bringing such services into their schools, rather than paying steep tuitions to private organizations.
"I'm not against public schools," said Rible. "But we've got to make sure those teachers are provided the tools that they need."
Among other measures, Considine said, administrators should regularly pop into special-education classrooms to monitor staffers' performance. And she said detailed records should be kept for each student, so that potential problems can be addressed as early as possible.
"There has to be a school-wide culture of support," said Considine, acknowledging that would require an investment of time and money. "Educating kids with disabilities is more challenging."
That challenge can require special-ed teachers and aides to have an extra reserve of tolerance.
"If you take autistic children, for example, they can get upset over something and it may have nothing to do with the actions of the teacher," observed Jay Kuder, chair of the Language, Literacy and Special Education Department at Rowan University. "It could be something sensory like a smell in the room or even how bright the lights are."
Chaifetz said he hid the recording device in his son's pocket after the school reported uncharacteristic outbursts by the child.
Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the overwhelming majority of teachers, and especially those in special education, respect their students.
"Becoming a special education teacher is not for everyone," said Wollmer. "It is challenging work, and the vast majority of special education teachers are sensitive to the needs of their students and know how to keep them safe in the classroom."
At the same time, he noted, "We live in a brave new world and the reality is people have access to technology on a massive scale. Teachers are susceptible to audio- and video-recording, and you should know that what you say can be captured and replayed."
Cherry Hill officials say all staffers heard speaking inappropriately on the video are no longer with the district, and that others in the classroom that day are on leave while an investigation continues. The district has not identified any of the employees, but an attorney for Akian's teacher, Kelly Altenburg, says she was not present when the offensive language was recorded.
Monday, April 30, 2012
Verbal abuse of autistic student sparks calls for reform
Cherry Hill School should not be the only one to learn from this experience, they are certainly not the only place where this type of abuse is happening!