CLOVER, S.C. - Parents of special needs students in Clover School District are calling for cameras in special education classrooms, after they say they've lost all trust in district leadership.
Kim and Bill Brittain decided to pull their 10-year-old autistic son Will out of Larne Elementary School last fall, after he began showing severe behaviors when going to school, and coming home from school.
"Just Because Will can't talk doesn't mean he can't communicate, and he communicated to us very clearly that something bad was happening at school," Kim Brittain said. "During one of our observations, Will became anxious because I was leaving. He literally went to his cubby, got his backpack and all his belongings, and when the teacher told him he was not leaving with me, he started crying. At that point I felt like he was trying to tell me something."
The Brittains weren't alone.
Kim Garhart pulled her autistic son out of Larne Elementary after he began showing severe behaviors as well.
"He started regressing in the bathroom, he became terrified of the dark, he also would go into the bathroom and say I'm okay, I'm okay, it's okay, it's okay, and we couldn't figure out what it was," Garhart said. "He started saying no school. And not only saying it, but crying uncontrollably, hitting himself, and so we just decided it was time."
The Brittains and Garhart felt like they had reason to worry.
Two years ago, a former teacher's aide at Larne Elementary School came forward with allegations that she saw autistic children being abused in the special education classrooms.
FOX 46 was able to track her down, and under the condition of anonymity, she agreed to speak with us.
"It bothered me so much that I had to speak up and say something, these kids can't speak for themselves," she said.
The aide had worked in the special education program at Clover School District for 10 years, before she says she witnessed the abuse at Larne Elementary in February 2014.
"There was a child being forced to eat something he didn't want to, and then when he had a mouthful, being put in a dark room to make him swallow it," she said. "Another child was in the shower, shivering, crying, very hysterically crying. There was an older child who was made to do a worksheet, and because he was crying with tears and snot and stuff, they took his shirt off and had him sitting there doing the work without his shirt."
FOX 46 asked her if she considers what she saw legitimate abuse.
"Yes I do," she said. "Especially when a child can't go home and tell his parents what happened."
The former TA said her coworkers began treating her differently after she came forward, and she was fired a few months after she reported the allegations to district leadership.
"I figured, if I did this, it was gonna be hard on me," she said. "I felt like I got [retaliated against]".
As a result, she filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the district, where she alleges she was retaliated against for reporting the alleged abuse of children with autism.
Clover School District spokesman Bryan Dillon told FOX 46 because of the pending litigation, the district can't comment on why she was fired.
But according to the TA's lawsuit, Larne Elementary School's principal met with her about allegedly not being able to do her job properly.
The documents also state the TA was accused of being vindictive by school leadership, and that was the reason for her termination.
The TA denies this.
"I voiced my opinion on how I was being treated to somebody else, who then went to somebody else, and then went to the principal, and I was terminated," she said.
Dillon told FOX 46 that a district investigation found no evidence to back up the claims of abuse.
"We did take it very seriously, the allegations that were made, and really looked into the whole portion of the allegations to make sure that any abuse claims were thoroughly investigated," he said.
But the Brittains and Garhart felt those allegations were swept under the rug.
"When the allegations came out two years ago, in the back of my mind I didn't think they were handled appropriately," Garhart said. "I was still nervous that things had happened to my son and other children in the school program."
The Brittains and Garhart said district leadership met with them to explain that allegations of abuse had been made, but that they were from a "disgruntled former employee," and that nothing was corroborated.
FOX 46 was able to obtain copies of Clover School District's investigation and findings through an open records request.
Names were redacted in the documents, but they contained the results of interviews district leadership had with teacher's and aides in the special education program at Larne Elementary.
According to the documents, one teacher's aide reported seeing a student forced to sit on the toilet for 90 minutes, and that she saw a different aide flip a child out of a chair.
The aide also told administrators a child was put into a closet to finish his food, that a teacher would use a timer to give the student 20 seconds to swallow, and if he didn't finish, he would be put in the dark.
A different teacher's aide reported seeing a student allowed to fall out of a chair as a natural consequence, witnessing the adult not try to block the fall. A teacher identified as "Teacher B" said a natural consequence is to let the child fall. An aide said that "Applied Behavior Analysis," also known as ABA, lets the child fall as a consequence and teaching moment.
The documents also say that a teacher put a child in a bathroom with the lights out as a negative consequence to get him to try new foods. When that didn't work, the teacher said she would try putting the child in the toy closet, which parents didn't know about.
The TA who interviewed with FOX 46 reported seeing that same teacher with a flashlight, telling a child "Do your work, or I will turn this light off."
The former TA also reported seeing a student backed into a corner and forced to count, and an aide grab a child's mouth because he was blowing bubbles.
The documents also show that some aides reported seeing nothing done wrong, and said they had no concerns.
FOX 46 obtained a letter the district sent to parents with children in the special education program at Larne Elementary following the investigation.
The letter said the district's investigation concluded there was no mistreatment of students, that what the aides witnessed were isolated snapshots of teaching methods, and that there was no malice in the methods they used.
The letter says the district gave follow up training to teachers and assistants on positive behavior strategies, and a different document said the district did not support the negative consequences one of the teachers used with eating issues. An internal district document said that some of what was witnessed could be perceived negatively, and that employees need to focus more on positive reinforcement, rather than negative.
The Brittains and Garhart told FOX 46 they were never shown the details of the investigation until we provided them with the results of our open records request.
"We've spent years dealing with lies, deception, deflection, all through a crooked smile," Bill Brittain said.
"There's not a week that goes by that we see a story that children with autism and other disabilities are being abused, and the thought that that could be happening to your child is devastating, " Garhart said.
Bill Brittain said because Will was in the accused teacher's class during the time these allegations surfaced, he believes he now knows why he became deathly afraid of the dark, just like Garhart's son, and the Brittains believe Will was one of the students purposely flipped out of a chair after they say he came home from school with a large lump on his head one day.
"As a parent of a child with special needs, your biggest fear is that someone will harm him or abuse him, or take advantage of him, and you never imagine that's going to happen at school," Kim Brittain said.
Citing her privacy rights, Clover School District denied a FOX 46 open records request asking for the disciplinary records of the teacher accused of the abuse by the former TA.
"At the time of the allegations, she was a very new teacher to the district," Dillon said. "And with the feedback based from the investigation, she was able to turn into a positive, and maybe change and adapt some of her styles she might have been using at the time to improve herself."
Dillon said that since the investigation, the teacher has grown into a quality educator, and has become National Board Certified.
FOX 46 asked Dillon if the district is comfortable in saying the teacher showed poor judgment at the time.
"There are various ways a teacher conducts themselves in a classroom," he said. "Since the allegations, she's been able to use more of what the district considers best practices in various situations, and she's really been able to learn from that period.
With these allegations in the back of their mind, with the recent behaviors Will had been showing at school, and after much back and forth correspondence with Will's special education teacher, on October 2nd, 2015, they decided to send him to class with a hidden recording.
It would capture something shocking.
When the class telephone rings to alert the teacher that the Brittains are there to pick Will up from school, Bill Brittain says the teacher makes a clear death threat towards his wife while she's speaking to her aides.
"Okay, I know how hard I work, and how hard you work, and how hard she works," a voice can be heard on the tape. "This woman makes me mad. If I find her, I will kill her, I will go to her house and kick her ass."
"I had to replay it just to make sure that's what I was hearing," Bill Brittain said. "My instant reaction was Oh My God, with all the past allegations of abuse coming out of that school.
"It was said in front of Will and these other students, with the assumption that they don't understand, and with the assumption that they don't have the ability to go tell someone this is happening," Kim Brittain said.
That's when the Brittains immediately decided to pull Will out of the district, and they filed a complaint about the apparent threat with administrators.
Superintendent Marc Sosne responded with a letter, thanking the Brittains for bringing the matter to the district's attention. He assured the Brittains that the district is "taking appropriate action against the correct employee in accordance with the findings."
However, a FOX 46 open records request revealed there are no written disciplinary records for the teacher accused of making the death threat.
"So regarding the audio tape, we agree that it was an inappropriate comment made in a classroom, and one that was taken and investigated very thoroughly and seriously," Dillon said.
Dillon said the district wasn't able to figure out who made the threat, and that everyone in the room denied saying it.
FOX 46 asked why there were no records of discipline.
"After the investigation was concluded, it was an opportunity that we found to make sure all parties involved and all district staff members understand the importance of professionalism at all times in the classroom," Dillon said.
The teacher and the aides received a verbal warning.
"I was pissed," Bill Brittain said.
"But not surprised," Kim Brittain said. "Not surprised because of our experience with the school district. It's infuriating, but not surprising."
The Brittains told FOX 46 Will's behaviors and anxiety have stopped since they pulled him out of Larne Elementary. He is now being home schooled.
Kim Garhart mentioned her son's behaviors have stopped since she pulled him out of the district.
The parents insist Clover School District should install cameras in their special education cameras, but the district told FOX 46 they do not support that, because they don't think it's necessary.
FOX 46 wanted an outside opinion on how Clover School District handled the investigation into the alleged abuse. FOX 46 sent the district's investigation paperwork to Gary Mayerson, a civil rights attorney based out of New York who represents children with autism and has litigated hundreds of ABA cases, including one that went to the Supreme Court.
Mayerson wrote the following:
"The horrendous, dehumanizing conditions reported to exist at Larne Elementary bear absolutely no connection to any legitimate implementation of ABA instruction. ABA is not about subjecting students to cruel and inhuman physical and psychological abuse. In my opinion, it is shameful and cowardly for any school district to defend against what are classic child abuse charges by claiming that "the teacher was new" or that the alleged "abuse" was actually part of the implementation of ABA teaching. While ABA certainly does attempt to teach a student the important life lesson that positive behaviors will result in positive consequences, ABA does not call for students to be allowed to fall backwards out of their chairs to teach the "consequences" of not sitting still in their chair any more than we would allow a child to be hit by a car to teach them the lesson that before crossing at an intersection, it is important to wait until the light turns green."
But Clover School district provided FOX 46 with their own response to Mayerson's statement:
"The District stands by our decisions and openness with parents during the 2014 investigation - abuse and neglect allegations were unfounded. The District kept classroom parents informed of the allegations, investigation, findings, and areas for improvement with written and face-to-face meetings. No parents have raised these allegations with the District since that time two years ago. The District is disturbed by the opinions erroneously linking that investigation to ABA therapy, a very particular educational methodology. Mr. Mayerson has not interviewed any District staff or observed in our classrooms. Private evaluators and state and national organizations who have done so routinely provide positive feedback and praise for the quality of our special education programming and offerings. The District also works closely with Duff, White, & Turner, a law firm focused on K-12 public schools, including over 75 years of combined experience in the area of special education law. Under federal law, special education parents may challenge District decisions through a due process hearing. No parents have filed a due process hearing request against the District in at least 10 years. If the District were to receive any related challenges, our attorneys feel strongly that the District would prevail."