Civil Action Filed Against School Staff Caught on Audio Verbally Abusing Autistic Students
On Tuesday, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced he has filed a civil action to protect the rights of students with disabilities in Berkeley County and throughout the state. This came after an audio recording was made public of a teacher and two aides at Berkeley Heights Elementary in Martinsburg, West Virginia, who can allegedly be heard verbally abusing and threatening two nonverbal students on the autism spectrum in 2018.
Amber Pack, the mother of one of the two nonverbal autistic children being abused, suspected something was happening at school. She told The Mighty her daughter didn’t want to go to school and the bus driver commented her child cried whenever they pulled up to school. One day when Pack had to pick her daughter up during morning hours for an appointment, her child ran to her and had been crying.
Pack sent her daughter with a hidden audio-only recorder in her hair. She didn’t reach out to school officials about her concerns at the time she decided to send her daughter to school with the audio recorder.
“I spoke to her doctor and said we were going to send her with a recording device,” Pack said. “She agreed it was a good idea.”
The audio Pack’s daughter came home with is disturbing and difficult to listen to. It captures the comments allegedly made by a teacher, Christina Lester, and two aides, June Yurish and Kristin Douty, recorded over a full school day. The recording indicates another student, Kasey Murphy’s 6-year-old son Owen was also targeted. Some of the statements made include:
You got to go pee-pee? Pee-pee? Or do you not have to go pee-pee and you just want to go **** *** in a chair?
I’m going to pull your hair until you start crying.
I’m a knock you out.
I am gonna beat your butt for sure and Owen, you’re gonna get one just cause.
There is nothing says I have to give you a snack. Nothing.
Looks like you get nothing Owen. Ha ha. Sorry buddy.
I ought to backhand you right in your teeth. How is that for anxiety?
When Pack heard the recording, she said she felt physically sick listening to it. “I actually started vomiting when they threatened her,” Pack said. The audio captured verbal attacks as well as the whimpering and audible fear response of Pack’s daughter when the threats were made. Pack said she felt guilty she had sent her child to school every day.
Pack went to the police the following morning. She also contacted the special education coordinator for the school district, saying her daughter would not be going back.
After police went to the school to investigate, school principal Amber Boeckmann called Pack regarding the situation. Boeckmann suggested the teachers and aides were talking to each other, not the children, saying the staff would never harm her child.
The special education coordinator said Pack’s daughter was “always off to herself,” and seemed to get more upset when staff were near her. “She also defended them in my opinion,” Pack said.
Murphy, the mother of the other student mentioned in the recordings, told WJLA the school never notified her of the audio files, even though it had been provided to the district. Murphy only learned about it after an audio clip was posted on Facebook.
“It’s sickening,” Murphy told WJLA. “People don’t even talk to animals like that and they are talking to nonverbal children who don’t understand why they are talking to them like that. They aren’t doing anything wrong.”
Police said they didn’t have enough to file a criminal charge, as aside from the audio there was no proof of physical harm or abuse. According to Metro News, all three school employees were placed on administrative leave in November 2018 after the incident came to light and have since resigned from the school district. Pack and Murphy’s children have been placed in other district schools.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Morrisey took on the case as a human rights civil complaint. In his statement announcing the decision, he said in cases where violence is used or threatened — in this case because of disability — his office has the power and duty to end such behavior.
The civil lawsuit alleges that two elementary-age autistic students who are nonverbal were threatened with physical violence, abuse and other outrageous conducts by a teacher and two school aides. According to Metro News, those accused could lose their ability to work with children in West Virginia and each violation would include a $5,000 civil penalty.
Morrisey also said his office will seek to deter other abuses in the school district, county and across West Virginia. He promised that when there are credible allegations and a teacher is threatening students, they will step in, take action “and make sure [the employees] never teach in West Virginia again.”
According to WJLA, the West Virginia Department of Education has also been investigating and does have the authority to review and revoke teaching certificates depending on the results of the investigation. The Civil Rights Office of the U.S. Department of Education has also opened an investigation into the case.
Since this incident, State Senator Craig Blair (R-Berkeley) sponsored Senate Bill 607, which proposes that county schools be required to provide a camera system in each classroom for children with disabilities and authorize parents or legal guardians to have remote access to the visual feed. If the bill passes, county school boards will be required to have camera systems in place by July 1, 2020.
“Protection of our most vulnerable students must be our highest priority,” Blair said. “Video surveillance not only provides protection of our students but our teachers as well.”
As for Pack, she has a message for any parent who suspects their child is not safe at school.
“I tell all parents to trust their gut,” Pack said. “Trust their kids, watch their cues, listen to what they are trying to tell you. My poor baby was constantly trying to tell me, and I didn’t listen to her.”
The Mighty reached out to the school and district and has yet to hear back.
Banner image screenshot from NBC 25 News