NOTE: Despite the fact that she admitted "that she sarcastically called the students names, including calling one child named Olivia "Oblivia," and another child "tons of fun" and that she also said that she sometimes "bopped" them on the head with water bottles, boards and objects to get their attention, despite the fact that all of these children are severely disabled and literally cannot speak..SHE WAS FOUND NOT GUILTY OF CHILD ABUSE.
One juror reportedly said, "Maybe that is what you need to do to teach those kids." Since when is "bopping a kid" on the head with BOARDS educational!?
Would they say the same things if it were a PARENT before them?
We hope the parents pursue civil charges...and that their attorneys find some additional "expert witnesses" who are not just classroom aides, but doctors and/or a certified school psychologists who can testify that hitting a disabled child in the head with a board is NOT a positive behavioral intervention and that NO RESEARCH exists to support it's "therapeutic" or "educational" value.
By Tiffany Lankes -- Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Tampa Bay Online
updated 7:16 p.m. ET, Sat., Feb. 14, 2009
SARASOTA - A well-spoken and assertive Diana O'Neill spent nearly four hours arguing her innocence Friday before a jury found her not guilty of four child abuse charges.
The six-person jury deliberated for about three hours before rendering its verdict.
The former Venice Elementary School special education teacher sat with her hands folded as the clerk read off each of the counts and the jury's not-guilty decision. After jurors left the room, O'Neill cried and hugged her husband.
"I'm glad that justice was served and the jury was able to see the truth," O'Neill, 46, said through tears as she left the courtroom.
The parents of the students she was accused of abusing sat on the other side of the courtroom Friday holding hands and hugging each other before the jury announced its verdict.
Some of them sobbed after the jury left the courtroom. One grandmother asked whether the verdict meant O'Neill could keep teaching. They all declined to comment.
O'Neill was accused of hitting, kicking and otherwise abusing four severely developmentally disabled students between October 2007 and January 2008. She had been a special education teacher at the school for 18 years before her arrest in February 2008.
Friday's verdict closes the criminal case against O'Neill, but not everything has been resolved.
The school district must decide whether to give O'Neill her old job back and the state could still revoke her teaching license.
Additionally, the parents of the children O'Neill was accused of abusing have hired attorneys and said they intend to sue the school district.
Four of those parents testified against O'Neill and sat through the trial, including when O'Neill took the stand Friday to defend herself.
O'Neill, the last witness to testify, described herself as a dedicated teacher who drinks six cups of coffee every morning and gets excited at even the most minor accomplishments of her students.
"I get all excited all over again," she said. "It's a new trick for my bag."
O'Neill maintained a calm and commanding demeanor as she explained the educational benefits of the techniques she was using with the children.
She raised her voice to add affirmation to certain responses, including when her attorney asked if she was getting burned out.
"Absolutely not," O'Neill said forcefully.
O'Neill did acknowledge that she sarcastically called the students names, including calling one child named Olivia "Oblivia," and another child "tons of fun." O'Neill also said that she sometimes "bopped" them on the head with water bottles, boards and objects to get their attention.
Both the prosecution and the defense called as witnesses educators from Venice Elementary School, who were split over whether the actions O'Neill was accused of taking were appropriate teaching methods.
The verdict followed a weeklong trial during which prosecutors attempted to prove that O'Neill's actions could have caused physical injury or mental harm to her students.
That standard was made more difficult to prove than in some other cases because all of the students involved are so severely disabled that they cannot speak.
They also have so many physical problems that there is no way to know whether she would have seriously injured them when aides say they saw her hit them on the head with objects, kick and push them.
Although prosecutors argued some of the children received bumps on the head, bruises and scratches in O'Neill's classroom, the defense said that those do not qualify as injuries.
The prosecution did not try to prove mental harm upon the children. Their mental capacity is unclear, and the prosecution would have had to prove that O'Neill's actions prevented them from acting in a "normal" manner.
"The standard itself is really hard," said prosecutor Dawn Buff after the verdict. "And this case was difficult."
The prosecution's case relied heavily on the testimony of classroom aides Tammy Cooke and Cindi Anderson, who spent three months keeping a detailed log of times they say O'Neill abused her students. There were also other school employees who say they saw O'Neill get too rough with her students over the years.
But defense attorneys argued that the aides mistook appropriate techniques for working with students with disabilities for abuse. They also repeatedly pointed out that no one came forward sooner to report that O'Neill was abusing her students.
An alternate juror who sat through the trial but did not participate in the decision said he was torn by the educators' testimony. Gerald Paquette said he could see how O'Neill's actions could be appropriate in a special education classroom, where students need a lot of physical interaction.
"Maybe that is what you need to do to teach those kids," Paquette said after the verdict.
The case drew the attention of child advocates, parents and court watchers, with the trial audience increasing every day.
On Friday the courtroom was filled nearly to capacity, including many people who said they were parents or former teachers.
Sarasota school union leaders sat in the courtroom behind O'Neill nearly every day. The union has supported O'Neill since she was arrested a year ago, including paying her attorneys fees early on. Union officials have declined to say whether they are still paying them, or how much the union has spent on O'Neill's defense.
School Board attorney Keith DuBose also watched the trial to gather information for the school district, which will now have to decide O'Neill's employment status.
While criminal courts must prove beyond a reasonable doubt a defendant's guilt, the standard is much lower for school districts or the state to revoke a teacher's license.
DuBose said he was also gathering information for possible civil lawsuits by the parents against the school district.