DALLAS — Two Burleson educators are accused of pinching children whose disabilities leave them unable to speak up for themselves and stifling the students’ cries.

Last week, the two were arrested on three misdemeanor charges of assault against an elderly or disabled individual.

Parents and advocates say such abuse is why Texas needs more widespread use of cameras in special education classrooms and stronger laws so families can review recordings when they notice changes in their children’s behavior.

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Cheyenne Oakley took her spunky and almost always-laughing 3-year-old son Sutton to school for the first time this fall at Burleson’s Norwood Environmental Science Academy, an elementary school south of Fort Worth.

“He has a huge personality for a little boy that can’t talk,” Oakley said of her only child.

Sutton has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He’s nonverbal but still communicates his emotions clearly through laughter, tears, and in some cases, screams.

In the first month-and-a-half of the school year, Oakley watched her son transform, becoming increasingly more emotional during school drop-off. She thought it was the newness in his routine. Worriedly she checked with his teachers about a potential behavioral problem. They insisted it was just the adjustment, she said.

But in early October, Norwood’s principal called. The two educators responsible for Sutton’s class — designed to get young children with disabilities ready for a mainstream education — had been accused of abusing some of their students, including Oakley’s son.

Principal Candice Cook explained to the families of Sutton’s classmates that someone had accused teacher Jeanna Mangus and Holly Monroe, a teacher’s aide, of inappropriate behavior toward kids including pinching them in their armpits, cupping hands over students’ mouths to stop their cries and ridiculing the young children with disabilities, according to a recording. The Dallas Morning News obtained a recording of Cook relaying the findings of the investigation to one of the student’s parents.

“Being a mom in general is scary for your child to start school, but especially when you’re a parent to a nonverbal child. You have your guard up super high,” Oakley said. “I’m living in my worst nightmare right now. My biggest fear is happening right in front of my eyes.”

Mangus and Monroe face three Class A misdemeanor charges, which are punishable by a fine up to $4,000 or one-year imprisonment in jail or both. Their arrest warrants are part of sealed court documents and are unavailable to the public at this time, a Burleson police official said this week.

Mangus declined to comment. Monroe did not respond to requests for comment.

Monroe received her educational aide certification from the state in 2002 and Mangus has been certified as a teacher since 2009, according to the State Board for Educator Certification.

School officials immediately removed the two from the classroom once they learned of the allegations, but didn’t tell family members until several days later. Burleson ISD opened an investigation into the claims, interviewing fellow staff members and then shared their findings with parents. The Dallas Morning News requested the investigative findings from the school district but has not yet received them.

Burleson school officials declined to share details of the investigation publicly, citing federal privacy laws.

“Student safety and welfare remains a top priority, and Burleson ISD will always act swiftly to intervene and partner with parents to provide students with the best learning environment possible,” district spokeswoman Mikala Hill said.

An email from principal Cook notified parents of the arrests the day before Thanksgiving, calling Mangus and Monroe former staff members. She said she learned in late September that the two were using improper restraints “behind the closed doors of their classroom.”

“We worked with district officials to conduct a thorough investigation, took all necessary steps to ensure these individuals would not return to the classroom, and shared all findings with the parents,” Cook wrote.

Several parents filed police reports following the district’s review.

Allegations

Guilia Herndon learned of the “disturbing news” on Oct. 5 when the principal told her that educators were accused of forcefully pressing hands to children’s faces for long stretches of time to stop them from crying.

Monroe had told another staff member to dig their nails into kids’ armpits to get kids to come in from recess, the principal told parents on the recording.

Cook told Archer’s parents he hadn’t been named in any of the abuse allegations, but that didn’t stop Herndon from remembering all the times she suspected something was wrong.

Her son would return home with scratch marks and bruises on his body sometimes. She had assumed they came from other students, but now she isn’t sure.

She remembered the rapid change in Archer’s mood once he started attending Norwood in the spring.

Her son, who is interested in the alphabet and obsessed with Dr. Seuss books, became distressed at the sight of his new campus. He would cry and throw himself on the ground. Over the summer, Archer’s demeanor returned to normal as he again became eager about learning shapes and colors.

“I feel really, really stupid,” Herndon said. “I beat myself up all the time that I can’t go back.”

Gloria Vigil saw the same trend in her son Noah. Officials would later tell her that he was one of the students whose mouth had been covered when he cried.

“We would turn onto the street to get to school and he would just start melting down,” Vigil said.

After the school district conducted its investigation, Cook told parents in the recording that a staff member had reported seeing Monroe use her knee to press into students’ backs so they would move. But the school’s inquiry found that allegations went beyond inappropriate physical touching.

Norwood officials told Oakley that a staffer reported that her son, who is largely unable to speak or move himself in his wheelchair, was found screaming from being too close to a projector light.

The staffer heard a cry from the hallway, Oakley was told.

“If you’re Sutton, you’re sitting in your body and unable to move and do anything,” Oakley said. “Then you would know exactly how my child feels. But you don’t, so you’re taking advantage of all these children not having choices.”

Oakley said school officials told her a staff member reported finding the two changing a student’s diaper in the middle of the classroom, making fun of him throughout the process.

In the recording, Principal Cook references instances when Monroe and Mangus would change students standing up instead of lying down. Monroe would say “This is gross. This is so disgusting. You smell,” Cook told parents.

Oakley said she felt like her son was being mocked when she heard the allegations.

“It really hurts my heart to know,” she said. “He isn’t stupid. He understands.”

Cameras in the classroom

After Oakley and Vigil learned of the allegations in early October, Sutton and Noah remained at home. They didn’t feel their sons were safe returning to the classroom until they knew there would be some kind of oversight or protection.

It was only after they were alerted to the abuse claims that parents learned self-contained special education classrooms could be outfitted with cameras at the request of parents, school administrators or trustees.

A Texas law, passed in 2015 to deter and prevent abuse of the most vulnerable students, made the state a national leader in this space as one of few with such a provision in place. But the law came with clear holes.

School officials don’t have an obligation to automatically install the cameras or to notify parents of the option, leaving many families unaware that they have the right to request recordings be made, said Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas.

And if an eligible requester does ask for a camera to be installed, the school district has 45 business days to do so. Requests must also be renewed annually, so having a camera in a classroom one year doesn’t mean it will be present the next.

Dallas ISD will place cameras in all special education classrooms. Trustees say the move is intended to ensure student safety.

Once cameras are installed, the recordings are only kept for three months unless a reason is given to prolong the storage. The recordings can’t be viewed at any time, either. The only way a recording can be viewed is if an alleged incident has taken place.

“We believe that’s too short a time for parents who may have lingering concerns but don’t want to believe the worst,” Aleman said. “And by the time they do come to the realization maybe something did happen, it’s too late to have any documentation.”

There’s tremendous value in having independent corroboration of allegations, Aleman said, noting that too often the tapes validate concerns of abuse or neglect.

While Texas is one of few states with such a law in place, it’s hard to know how many districts actually use cameras in the classrooms. Schools don’t have to report to the state when they install cameras, so the only record the Texas Education Agency keeps on the cameras is likely incomplete.

Dallas ISD officials believe it is the only school district in the state that has chosen to place cameras in all eligible classrooms. Trustees voted in early 2020 to do so as a proactive measure. At the time, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa opposed the decision, noting the high cost and few times families request to view already available videos.

DISD surveyed families and educators on the move and found more than three-quarters of English-speaking parents and 90% of Spanish-speaking parents supported it.

About 70% of special education teachers said they opposed the move and more than one-quarter said they would look for jobs elsewhere, but the rollout in the past two years hasn’t faced pushback, said Michelle Brown, DISD’s executive director of Special Services.

The district recently finished installing nearly 1,200 cameras across 175 campuses, although the number fluctuates each year as enrollment in special education programs goes up and down. The move cost DISD roughly $1.4 million and will carry a $1 million-plus expense in future years to maintain the cameras.

While only a handful of families have made use of the cameras since they’ve been placed, Brown said she feels their presence is worthwhile.

“If it makes our families (feel) an extra layer of feeling safe that their child is safe and being cared for? I’m fine,” she said. “It also protects our educators.”

After learning about the law, Norwood parents pushed the school to install cameras in their kids’ classroom. School administrators expedited the process so families wouldn’t have to wait the law’s allowed 45 business days.

The district did not respond to a question about how many cameras have been installed throughout the district since Texas’ law passed.

Had cameras been in place before the incident, parents concerned about their students’ change in mood or mysterious scratches could have asked to view recordings, they said.

While the newly installed devices will provide some comfort, some parents still fear what could happen.

“No matter how much I trust these teachers, no matter if there’s cameras or not, I’m so worried that there’s going to be loopholes that people are going to take advantage of,” said Oakley, who still hasn’t felt safe enough for Sutton to return to school.

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