Claim: Special Education Student ‘Caged’ In Class
A 7-year-old special education student was allegedly locked in a makeshift cage by her first-grade teacher last school year, according to two claims filed against the teacher and school administrators in mid-October.
Parent Ledelldra Brooks says she discovered the alleged abuse in late May when she made an unannounced visit to Viking Elementary School in Fresno, Calif. and found her daughter in the cage, wearing a soiled diaper. Brooks called the police, hired a lawyer and is now submitting the claims, which is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit.
Internal emails from the Fresno Unified School District, obtained by Brooks’ attorney through a public records request, show school officials acted swiftly to enroll the child at a new elementary school.
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The Viking teacher, Teresa MonPere, was immediately put on administrative leave, emails from administrators and special education employees show. MonPere confirmed in an interview Friday she now works at another elementary school but declined to comment further. District spokeswoman Micheline Golden said Friday that Viking principal Christie Yang and Cheryl Hunt, assistant superintendent for special education, would not be allowed to comment.
“We take these situations very seriously,” Golden said. “We conducted a thorough investigation consistent with our personnel procedures. I can’t share any outcome of that investigation because it is a personnel issue.”
After learning about the allegation, the district searched classrooms at most of its schools for any similar enclosures.
“Fresno Unified is committed to providing the best education possible for our special education students and being their advocates,” Golden said. She was unable to discuss whether any other cages were found or whether any training has been instituted.
A lengthy log of internal emails show school officials, including Superintendent Michael Hanson and Trustee Carol Mills, identified the allegation as a serious matter.
Mills wrote an email to Hanson as soon as she learned of the alleged incident, saying, “It seems there is a need for more training for special ed aides — on how to handle the students and on their rights and responsibilities.” Mills said she was grocery shopping when she found out about the event. She ran into a district employee who shared the news and told her about similar allegations at other schools.
“I forwarded it to the superintendent immediately so he could look into it,” she said Friday.
Hanson then asked Hunt to find out more.
Brooks says she still has concerns.
“I honestly want the public to know what’s going on behind special education, what went on in my daughter’s class,” she said.
Her daughter, who has intellectual disability and a seizure disorder, was allegedly found on May 27 isolated from her classmates in a locked enclosure made from a toddler gate and a crib gate attached to bookshelves. The girl was one of seven students with special needs in the class, a teacher’s aide told police.
Brooks immediately took her daughter out of class, called the principal with her concerns and alerted police.
Investigators responded, the police report from that day shows, and they found and dismantled the enclosure and interviewed MonPere’s classroom aides, the principal and Brooks. Police declined to provide the report because the girl is a minor, but Brooks’ lawyer obtained a copy and provided it to The Bee.
Police Lt. Joe Gomez said the inquiry was forwarded to the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office as a potential misdemeanor child abuse. No charges have been filed and no one has been arrested, he said. Kathy Ochinero, administrative secretary for the DA’s office, could not provide additional details, but the police report shows the DA’s office didn’t file charges because “there did not appear to be any intent and therefore no child abuse would have occurred.”
The police report sheds some light on the Viking School allegations.
Two teachers aides interviewed by police said the children with special needs were put in the gated area only when they were out of control or posed a risk to themselves and classmates, but the enclosure was not used for punishment. On the day Brooks discovered her daughter there, the aides said, she had been disruptive in class. She’d also scratched one of the aides, they said.
Yang, the principal, told police the enclosure, which was installed about three years ago, was merely a safety precaution. She didn’t know how often it was used, but said she’d witnessed children inside before.
At the time, MonPere declined to talk to police and said she was seeking representation through the Fresno Teachers Association union. FTA President Tish Rice declined to comment this week.
Brooks’ attorney Peter Alfert said school officials should have known better, especially since district policies and state law forbid teachers from using locked, secluded areas for punishment or any other reason.
Alfert pointed to a memo in one of the district emails, which says staff can restrain children or put them in a timeout during a violent outburst or other crisis. But isolating a youngster in a locked room or other area is prohibited, it says.
He said the girl could suffer “long-lasting effects.” According to the claim, she’s developed fears of being alone and being behind closed doors. Emails show school officials offered the girl counseling shortly after the incident.
Special education expert Joe Bowling said using a locked enclosure for any student is “totally inappropriate.”
“This is not something I would put a child into and claim this is for their own protection. It’s a cage, this is what you would put a wild animal in,” said Bowling, executive director for the regional board of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Bowling said there are best practices for calming students with special needs. Holding a student from behind in a bear hug is one way to deal with an outburst, he said.
“Obviously there are people in the district that need training,” he said. “I can’t believe that somebody, an administrator walking in that room and seeing it, would allow that.”