Thursday, February 12, 2009

FL: Expertise of teacher aides is questioned in abuse trial

NOTE: While we agree that many times aides who are working with disabled children may not have appropriate training (and are trained mainly by the teachers they are paired with), we also acknowledge that someone who has worked with disabled children for "18 years" may also be equally unqualified to work with children, especially when "educational techniques" like bending back fingers, verbal abuse, or using weighted blankets or body socks as a form of punishment are routinely used and accepted by said teacher as "standard practice." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize such actions on the part of an educator are highly questionable practices at best, if not outright abuse.

If a parent was caught doing some of the things to their children that this woman has been accused of doing, the parent would have been arrested and most likely prosecuted for child abuse. Why are teachers, especially special education teachers who should KNOW better, held to such different standards?

Is the general public really THAT ignorant about what constitutes inhumane treatment of the disabled? If so, what a sad world we live in...

By Tiffany Lankes
Published: Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 6:14 a.m.

SARASOTA - Tammy Cooke never worked with severely disabled children before she took a job as a special education classroom aide at Venice Elementary.

A stay-at-home mother who studied business, she applied for the job because it was convenient. She received her training on the job, with veteran teacher Diana O'Neill showing her how to feed, care for and teach the students.

When O'Neill did things Cooke thought were too rough, the teacher said they were appropriate techniques for educating a challenging group of students. Cooke did not know any differently.

She was one of two classroom aides who ultimately reported O'Neill for child abuse and testified against the teacher this week in court. O'Neill, 46, is charged with four counts of child abuse.

Cooke's situation underscores something parents and advocates say is a larger problem in special education -- the inexperience of aides charged with helping teach the school system's most vulnerable children.

In a phone interview, Sharon Boyd, who works with Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group for students with disabilities, said, "We need to make sure the people we're putting in these classrooms with these children have the training and support they need."

In a field that drives more educators away than any other part of the school system, finding teachers is tough and hiring aides to assist them for significantly less pay is even more difficult.

By and large, school districts have minimal standards for the people they hire as aides in special education classrooms. While teachers like O'Neill must have an advanced degree, special training and a state teaching license, in Sarasota the minimum requirement for a special education aide is a high school diploma or equivalent. They do not have to have a state teaching license.

The disparity is also reflected in their salaries. While O'Neill made an $80,000 salary, which included a special seniority bonus, the two aides in her classroom make less than $12 an hour, or about $15,600 for a typical school year.

And like most other school districts, Sarasota does not have any specific training requirements for special education aides. They say that schools decide on a case-by-case basis what skills their aides may need to learn, and try to arrange it.

Parents and disability advocates say that this inexperience can hurt children's progress in school.

Sarasota parent Julie Klick has found that some of the aides who have worked with her elementary school son, who cannot speak or walk, did not know how to use many of the teaching tools, therapy techniques and technology he needs to learn.

"The teacher has got all these other students to work with, and the aides don't know how to do it," Klick said in a phone interview. "They don't know how to get him as involved and they don't know how to adapt things for him. It's just kind of frustrating."

They also say the inexperience puts students in dangerous situations.

In September, police arrested former Venice High School aide Richard Green after co-workers said they saw him slam an autistic student into a wall. Green's attorney said he told supervisors he did not have the appropriate training to work with the student, but they placed him with the teenager anyway. The district had scheduled his crisis prevention class for the week after his arrest, about a month into the school year.

O'Neill's classroom aides from over the years say they repeatedly saw the teacher do things they thought were unnceccessarily rough, but never reported it because they were not sure whether it qualified as teaching.

Defense attorneys have focused on the inexperience of the aides during their cross-examination of witnesses, questioning how two aides -- the prime witnesses in the case -- would know better than O'Neill, a teacher with 18 years of experience.

They describe O'Neill as a dedicated teacher who would not stop at anything, including tough love tactics, to make sure her students were learning.

Attorneys also questioned whether the aides knew how common therapy tools -- including a weighted blanket and body sock aides say O'Neill used to abuse students -- could help them.

"You really don't know what these items are used for," O'Neill's attorney Denis deVlaming told Cooke in court.

Prosecutors are expected to call more witnesses from the school today.

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