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Teacher, Aides Arrested for Abuse of Three Autistic Students After Cruel Punishment

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On Monday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office announced that three Silver Sands Elementary School employees in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, have been charged with aggravated child abuse after subjecting three students on the autism spectrum to cruel punishment at school. Sheriff Larry Ashley and Okaloosa Schools Superintendent Marcus Chambers made the announcement during a press conference.

Teacher Margaret Wolthers, 48, and aides Diana LaCroix, 52, and Carolyn Madison, 47, were responsible for incidents that took place between Sept. 1 to Nov. 14, 2018. The victims were a 10-year-old and two 8-year-old students on the autism spectrum.

According to Ashley, the three autistic students were locked in a pitch-black bathroom for punishment with no supervision on different occasions. One of the children was held for 90 minutes and the other two for “unreasonable lengths of time.” The classroom aides who witnessed these incidents said the victims screamed and cried when placed in the bathroom.

In another incident, the sheriff’s office said the teacher and aides “intentionally and maliciously” blew a whistle in the ear of a child who requires the use of noise-canceling headphones to protect him due to a low sensory auditory threshold. In a warrant, one of the investigators wrote, “This was done while holding the victim’s arms down, keeping him from protecting himself by covering his ears.”

Ashley said two witnesses, separate teacher’s aides, brought these incidents to the attention of the school resource officer who then contacted the abuse hotline. A third witness in the school confirmed the alleged abuse, and the school is cooperating with the investigation. In full transparency, Ashley also disclosed Wolthers is the wife of one of the sheriff department’s deputies.

According to Ashley, the school’s principal, Jon Williams, confirmed school policy does not allow seclusion without supervision as a form of punishment. The principal also said holding a student captive while blowing a whistle in their ear is not an acceptable form of discipline or proper protocol for correcting behavior.

“This form of discipline was not known or approved by the parents, principal or school,” Ashley said. Silver Sands Elementary is a school for children with disabilities.

During the same press conference, Ashley said a school guidance counselor at another school in the district, Shalimar Elementary School, was charged for failing to report child abuse. In 2017, three employees, including a special education teacher and former school principal at Kenwood Elementary School, another Okaloosa school, were charged for the abuse of a 6-year-old autistic student.

As a result of grand jury reports looking into her mishandling of such abuse reports, often involving students with disabilities, then-superintendent, Mary Beth Jackson, was suspended by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Jan. 11 of this year. Chambers was appointed district superintendent in her place.

“This is something that we take very seriously,” Chambers said. “We in the school district will not tolerate the action or inaction of any employee that’s not making the right decision when it comes to the health, safety and welfare of our students.”

Chambers said they will continue to look at their discipline practices and training and will continue to work cooperatively with the sheriff’s office and other authorities. According to the Miami Herald, jail records show that both LaCroix and Madison were out of jail Tuesday after each posting a $10,000 bond.

Banner image via Okaloosa County Sheriff’ Office Facebook video

Originally published: January 31, 2019
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