Saturday, October 25, 2008

CT: Accounts of abuse inspire parents to form group

Accounts of abuse inspire parents to form group
By LISA BACKUS , Herald staff

NEW BRITAIN - Outraged parents of two autistic children allegedly abused by their special education teacher demanded changes to the school system Thursday just minutes after the teacher pleaded not guilty to criminal charges stemming from the incidents.

Michele Campbell, 36, of Plantsville, is facing seven felony counts for incidents involving three autistic boys ages 5 to 7 in her classroom at Chamberlain School, police said. A warrant for her arrest has been sealed by the court until today.

A spokeswoman for a newly formed advocacy group described allegations against Campbell that included locking an autistic 6-year-old boy in a dark closet, pouring water down a student's nose until the student choked and tying a child to a chair and screaming in his ear.

"The incidents were discovered in May and likely were happening all school year long, yet parents weren't notified until after the state Department of Children and Families did an investigation in July," said Lisa Nkonoki, of Ps & Qs - Parents and Quality, formed after the allegations surfaced.

"Since then not one parent has been called, and one of the parents still hasn't been told their child was abused because they have since moved out of the school system," she said.

The group is calling for better parental notification and more support for special education students. Nkonoki said the school system has yet to offer any help for the parents or children dealing with the aftermath of abuse.

Arelis Kinard, a parent of the one of the students involved, said her 7-year-old son is nonverbal but has been having behavioral problems that may be attributed to abuse. "I'm angry, I'm angry at the school, I'm angry at the system," she said during an often tearful press conference on the steps of New Britain Superior Court.

Parent Alberta Marin said her son now fears going to bed after being locked in a dark closet. "It's a struggle every day when you have a child with autism," Marin said. "Every day is different, and one morning he can wake up and be sensitive to something - even brushing his teeth can be a problem. He doesn't want to sleep alone anymore, he wants me to keep the TV on all night. I can tell there's something in his head that I can't find out."

School officials said Campbell was placed on administrative leave in May after the incidents were reported. There was a five-week DCF investigation, and she was assigned to a different school at the start of the school year.

"She was returned to a different school population with another teacher," Superintendent Doris Kurtz said. "She is not in the same isolated environment and has been put back on paid administrative leave since her arrest."

Kurtz said she was bound by confidentiality rules not to discuss the allegations but added that she would meet with the new parent group. "When the parents delineate their issues, I will be happy to meet with them," Kurtz said. "I will tell them what I can, but they will have to understand that I have to be very careful not to violate anyone's rights."

When Kinard learned about the allegations and that Campbell was still working in the system, she brought the incidents to the attention of police. Campbell was arrested by warrant Oct. 9 on charges of risk of injury and cruelty to persons. She pleaded not guilty Thursday during a brief court appearance. Campbell declined to comment as she left the courthouse.

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