A Killeen mother is calling for transparency in special-needs classrooms after a case of mother’s intuition led her to uncover “shocking” treatment of special-needs children in her son’s life skills classroom at Iduma Elementary School in the spring.
After witnessing one life skills teacher lose her temper with a child during a field trip, Laura Thomas said she was left with an awful feeling.
“I saw this teacher and aides act terribly to these children. After seeing her yell at a kid who spilled popcorn, I thought this isn’t right and had a really bad feeling.
“That’s when my friend suggested I send a recorder (to school), because you never know how bad it is when you’re not around,” Thomas said. “I’m so glad I did, because I was mortified.”
In March 2014, Thomas and her family moved to Killeen from Colorado Springs, Colo., where they were stationed at Fort Carson. Thomas’ son, a now 6-year-old special-needs student at Iduma Elementary, suffers from a rare condition, schizencephaly, in which he is missing a large portion of the right side of his brain. He is nonverbal but typically has a very pleasant demeanor, Thomas said.
“He’s very happy, he likes to laugh, and he’s usually just happy, bubbly and calm. He likes weird noises and lights and toys,” Thomas said.
“During the time that he went to (Iduma), he was just fussy and he started crying and whining a lot more. We noticed a trend where, instead of using the buttons on his tray, he was just screaming. I didn’t know why he was all of the sudden doing this. What was going on?”
She decided to find out.
Many special-needs students in Killeen Independent School District are placed in life skills classes instead of regular classrooms.
According to Diana Miller, Killeen ISD assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, a life skills class is instructed by one teacher and two aides and may contain up to 15 students with a wide range of “mild to severe intellectual disabilities.” In this setting, “students have access to academic, adaptive behavior, vocational and social skills opportunities in accordance with the student’s (individual education plan).” “(Life skills) teachers must have a bachelor’s degree and hold a Texas-issued special education teaching certificate.”
In May, in an effort to find out what was happening at school, Thomas said she planted a small recorder in her son’s backpack before school.
To her surprise, her son returned from school with an open backpack and no recorder. A week later, she said, the recorder was returned to her husband, William, during an unrelated meeting with Iduma Elementary Principal Judy Tyson.
All the contents, including other unrelated recordings, were gone, which raised a red flag.
“I knew it would be bad when I found it was all deleted,” Laura Thomas said. “For them to take it, find it, and then give it back to us deleted really pissed me off.”
For $35 she was able to recover 46 minutes of the lost recording through an online program, Wondershare Photo Recovery.
At minute 34, a teacher and two aides are heard angrily interrogating another child, referred to as Aubrey, about spitting on the table:
“Child: (crying) What do I do?
Teacher: Clean it up. I shouldn’t have to talk to you every day. Go sit down.
Teacher: Stop spitting on my table; ain’t nobody got time for that nonsense.
Teacher: If you’re going to cry, go to the bathroom until you’re done. I’m not going to listen to it, I don’t listen to my kids cry at home and I’m not going to listen to you.”
“(In the recording), they were just feeding off each other, they were all yelling, and not one of them said this is not OK. I don’t know what happened when they said, ‘Do you want your new name to be pain?’ and then you hear screaming. I thought, ‘Oh, God is she hitting them, pinching?” Thomas said.
Aubrey and her military family have since moved out of the district, she added.
Thomas said she felt lied to when recalling a discussion she had with her son’s teacher the day of the recording.
“(The teacher) said the class had a great day — they obviously did not have a great day. They were screamed at and verbally abused,” Thomas said.
“You see these things on ‘60 Minutes’ and you feel terrible, but it’s not happening to you. When it happens to you, you feel like you’re living in a nightmare,” Thomas said.
On Friday, Killeen ISD Superintendent John Craft released a statement to the Herald in regard to the recording: “The district was notified of the allegation last spring. The matter was investigated at the time and appropriate actions have been initiated. The district is unable to provide specific comment regarding individual students due to protections provided under the law, including the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.”
School district officials were unable to go into detail about what “appropriate actions” they took.
It’s not the first time a parent questioned the Iduma life skills class staff’s treatment of special-needs students.
Jamie Limon, whose son was in the class during the 2013-2014 school year, said she also noticed a change in her son while he was attending Iduma.
Gabriel, in first grade at the time, has a condition called chromosomal micro-deletion, which Limon said causes him to have some speech and behavioral issues.
During a fire drill that year, Limon said she noticed the life skills teacher being rough with the students.
“I saw how the aides interacted with the children, how the teacher did. They were just so harsh. They would yank the kids up because some of them would try to touch the grass. There was this one child, in particular, who was constantly running away, trying to elope, and it was obvious they had no behavior plan in place. The teacher was just always restraining him, always holding him,” Limon said.
“They are very rude to these children. I could tell by the way my son’s behavior started changing, he started regressing more. I know it was a direct result of what was going on in that classroom ... we’re still dealing with that today,” said Limon, who has since moved her family out of the district.
As a new school year nears, the Thomases remain concerned about their son’s situation.
They requested a Child Protective Services investigation into the recording in May, but the results were inconclusive, Laura Thomas said.
“We did file a CPS report but nothing came of it. They interviewed one child, but the child was nonverbal,” she said.
“I was in disbelief,” said William Thomas of the recording. “You don’t talk to anyone that way, much less a kid, and even worse a special-needs child that can’t defend themselves.”
“I can’t imagine; if that was my kid ... I’d be in jail,” he said.
In an email obtained by the Herald, an official at Iduma Elementary said the teacher and aides heard in the recording were “reassigned at a different level.”
“It’s still aggravating,” Thomas said, “It’s not like I just made an accusation; it’s terrible proof. It’s horrifying.
“My husband was so mad. He doesn’t cry easily, but he was horrified.”
William Thomas has served 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, but now said he has considered making a career move.
“We are going to see how things go this new school year, but my commander has said he’ll do whatever is needed to help us move,” he said, even if it adversely affects his career.
“Career progression would be hindered a bit. I’d have to take a step down, or right, or left.”
Laura Thomas wants to make sure nothing like what’s heard on the recording happens again.
“What checks and balances are there to make sure that (staff) are mentally prepared to do this job? I mean it’s hard as a parent, I can’t imagine doing it as a teacher. (The district) needs to make sure (teachers) are mentally prepared to teach kids who are not neurotypical,” Thomas said.
“Other kids in the classroom and their parents need to know that this is going on, this may not be every day, but it shouldn’t be going on at all.”
Parents shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for their children, she said.
“Go with your instinct if you think there’s something wrong. Do your due diligence because you never know what’s going on when other people are with your kids,” Thomas said.
“We’ve had some really great teachers, but obviously it only takes one time to ruin your trust.”