NOTE: A nurse admitted that she knew some loud noises will induce a seizure in a child wih epilepsy - and was recorded as DELIBERATELY and repeatedly ringing a bell, telling others, "Watch me as I thrown him into a seizure."
Other abuses were recorded. Yet the school is claiming they've done no wrong...
By Robert Patrick
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Mapaville — Sheila Scott's severely disabled son Chandler cannot tell her what he learned at his state-run school in this Jefferson County town. Although he is 12, he cannot communicate how he is treated. So the mother started hiding a tape recorder in his wheelchair.
What she didn't hear disturbed her: no distinctive pop from the opening of a can of his PediaSure lunch, none of the familiar sounds of him eating.
What she did hear was disturbing, too. In one case, it was the sound of a school nurse ringing a bell and saying, "Watch me throw him into a seizure," and then ringing it about 30 times more.
The nurse later admitted to an inquiry panel for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, that she knew loud noises might trigger seizures in epileptic children such as Chandler.
In a 2-1 decision last month, that panel sustained Scott's complaints of abuse and neglect. But neither side is satisfied.
DESE says the panel went too far, and is seeking an order in federal court in St. Louis to overturn the finding as unfounded.
Scott and parents of eight other students are suing too, saying the panel did not go far enough. They're asking a federal judge to close all 35 state schools for the severely disabled because of a "continued and persistent failure" to properly educate the disabled as required by law.
They ask that the state be forced to fire offending Mapaville staffers and install Web cameras there and at similar schools, so parents and officials can monitor what goes on.
"These kids are shoveled into these state schools to be forgotten about — not to be educated and not to be treated with respect," said Scott, of rural Jefferson County. "It seems like nobody cares how they were treated."
Jonathan Beck, the lawyer representing her and other parents, said the secret recordings she and two other mothers made were just a snapshot. "These are just the things we know," Beck said. "What about all the days and all of the classrooms we didn't tape? What did we miss?"
The suit claims the Mapaville school has chronically inadequate supervision and undertrained employees, and failed Chandler "through a persistent pattern of profound incompetence, willful neglect, gross misjudgment and reckless indifference to his rights."
State education officials say in their suit that Chandler got an appropriate education, and that the panel's decision was "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable." The Missouri attorney general's office, which represents the school, declined to comment.
Responding to questions by e-mail, Charlie Taylor, superintendent of the Missouri Schools for the Severely Disabled, a part of DESE, said that complaints about Mapaville were met with "a thorough investigation" and that "corrective actions were taken" as needed.
He declined to comment on personnel matters, or specifics of the state's appeal.
"We believe that all the state schools provide a safe and caring environment for the students entrusted to our care," Taylor wrote this week.
AN AIDE'S EYE VIEW
Chandler's host of medical problems, including cerebral palsy and epilepsy, put him at the developmental level of a 3- to 9-month-old. He must eat liquid or pureed food, doesn't cry and doesn't sweat, leaving him vulnerable to heat.
Scott said she became concerned when she worked as an aide in Mapaville in 2007. She said she saw students left in their wheelchairs all day instead of being engaged in therapy or education. She also said other workers came to her with concerns about her son's being left in a hot classroom.
After a day when she picked up Chandler soaking in his own urine, Scott quit the job, saying she couldn't work there and advocate for her son at the same time.
She bought a digital recorder at a Radio Shack, cut a small slit in the fabric covering the bottom of his wheelchair and secured it inside with Velcro. At night, she downloaded the recordings to a computer and spent hours reviewing them. She said she pulled Chandler out for good after spending one long night listening in vain for the sounds of him being fed.
Two other parents also made recordings.
One of them, Jamie Harvell, 39, of Festus, said that her 17-year-old son Joshua, who has a genetic disorder, once had an excellent teacher at Mapaville. But in recent years with different staff members, she said, Joshua did not get the exercise he needed. Her recording was unusable, and her family's complaint was rejected by a different state panel.
Harvell now home-schools Joshua.
The remaining parent, Melissa Conner, of Pevely, also lost her case on behalf of son Colten, who she claimed was not being properly educated.
On Dec. 8, the panel reviewing Scott's case ruled 2-1 that Chandler had not received a fair and adequate education from the first day of the 2007-08 school year, as required by law.
"It makes us feel like we can win one of these," said Beck, the lawyer, who is paid by a Crystal City advocacy group, the Disability Resource Association.
PANEL FINDS ABUSE
The panel members said that the manner in which staff talked to students in Chandler's classroom "seemed emotionally abusive," and suggested that if overheard by them, "it would at least be appropriate to report the person for abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities."
The ruling said the "derogatory behavior" on the tapes seemed "at least fairly routine."
Scott "did not believe, for justifiable reasons, that it was safe for her child to attend" Mapaville, the opinion says, and "had no other choice" than to pull her son out of school.
Witnesses during the four-day administrative hearing in September testified that they had spotted staffers doing puzzles or reading books or magazines instead of interacting with the children — even getting a exercise workout during school hours.
One volunteer said she saw an aide in Chandler's classroom discipline a child with squirts of water in the face.
The panel noted that Chandler appeared to make "remarkable progress" once he was at home, working with a state-provided teacher and therapists under his mother's close supervision.
The ruling said Chandler should get a personal aide and extra therapy as compensation for his treatment at school.
The dissenting hearing officer, George Wilson, wrote that the school system was denied due process because it didn't even know what was at issue before the hearing. He said that Scott did not meet their burden of proof, and that the panel allowed hearsay testimony and audio recordings of "highly questionable evidentiary value."
Wilson declined to be interviewed about the case, as did the chief hearing officer, Samara N. Klein.
Chandler's teacher, a long-term substitute, did not have a college degree and had no education classes among the 60 credit hours she had accumulated toward an associate degree, the panel report said. She is now an aide in another classroom.
Sheila Scott said that she would educate Chandler herself if the state stopped paying for schooling at home, and that he would not return to Mapaville. "It's never going to happen."