Friday, May 22, 2009

GA: Mother Records Autistic Child's Alleged Abuse

From 11 Alive - NOTE: A judge has ruled the bruises on this young boy were caused by "an adult at school"...but did not find ANYONE specifically responsible despite an audio recording of an educator asking him if he wanted a "be quiet hit," which was then followed by thumps and sounds of pain.

ATLANTA -- Stefan is an 11-year-old boy with Autism. A judge ruled he was physically and verbally abused at school.

11Alive has learned from the Deputy Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools that the teacher involved in this story is "no longer in the classroom."

Atlanta Public School representatives sent a letter to the Georgia Department of Education and Metropolitan Regional Education Services demanding answers.

Stefan is an Atlanta Public School student but because of his special needs, he goes to schools run by a state agency called Metro North.

They line the outside of each leg -- bruises from knee to hip. A judge has ruled a school employee caused these injuries to 11-year-old Stefan Ferrari the day before pictures were taken.

Stefan cannot speak. He has Autism, and is non-verbal.

He could not tell his parents -- couldn't tell anyone -- what happened to him. But he had a mother who believed, before this happened, that something was terribly wrong at his school.

Stefan went to Margaret Mitchell Elementary School in Buckhead, where he was doing well, but he was transferred to the Marshall School in DeKalb County in August 2008, due to renovations.
That's when the Ferraris say things started to fall apart.

"I knew something was really wrong for the first time on September 8th," said Stefan's mother, Carolyn Ferrari.

That's when she said Stefan came home with bloody scratches, bruises and ripped shorts. His behavior over the next month deteriorated.

"It was getting worse and worse," Carolyn said.

Marcelo and Carolyn Ferrari say they repeatedly told school officials they were concerned. So the mother of a boy without a voice found a way to give him one.

"It's about the size of a quarter," Carolyn said about a microphone she sewed into Stefan's shirt. She sent him to school with it on October 21.

It would be his last day at Marshall.

"As soon as he took his boxers off to get in the shower, I noticed it," said Stefan's father, Marcelo Ferrari. "And I was like, 'oh my God'."

Marcelo was shocked by the severe bruising covering his son's legs. He and his wife went straight to the tape.

"Sit down stupid," was one of the things they heard on the tape.

"It was horrifying," Carolyn said. "I was visibly sick. I felt like I was going to vomit."

Carolyn and Marcelo stayed up all night listening to hour after hour of what they say was the neglect, ridicule and abuse of their son.

With the microphone hidden at the base of Stefan's neck, picking up the sounds around him, the Ferraris listened to the adults in the room talk about the size of a boyfriend's genitals.

"The man I'm dating is intelligent. But he has a small penis. You can't throw a pebble into the ocean. Does it matter? Does size matter? Yes it does."

The adults talked about drinking.

"Russian vodka with olive juice. That's a dirty martini?"

At one point in the day, Stefan ate some pizza out of the trash can. The adults joked about it.

"I mean he was chill. Finger lickin' good. He was chillin' with that."

But what the Ferraris heard that horrified them was this:

"You want a be-quiet hit?" (followed by the sound of a thump) "There you go. Get it now, go on."

And two minutes later, listen as an adult tells others to leave.

"Please make him be quiet. Go away. Go. Take a minute. Go. Go on."

And 15 seconds later, there were 18 seconds of thumps and the sounds of Stefan making noises.

"It was numbing, and yet at the same time, you can't stop listening to it, because you're thinking, 'oh my God, if my child went through this, I need to hear what happened to my child'," Carolyn said.

The Ferraris called DFACS and Atlanta police. Both investigations went nowhere. They sued the Atlanta Public Schools -- which recommended the program to the family. What was done to Stefan Ferrari and who did it would be decided in a small state administrative courtroom.

First up, Marshall's principal, Gail Healy.

"At no time after interviewing my teachers, talking to them do I feel he was abused at my program," Healy said.

Attorneys for Atlanta Public Schools said maybe Stefan cause the injuries to himself, but the Ferraris said Stefan was never self-injurious -- and the judge agreed.

Stefan's pediatrician, Dr. Alison Koenig testified.

"It seems to me something like that, he could not have done to himself but somebody had done it to him," she said.

The school's attorneys suggested maybe Stefan's father did it.

In his ruling, Judge John Gatto found, "Stefan was not injured at home...(He) was injured at school...His injuries were caused by multiple infliction of trauma. They were caused by his being struck by a hand or an object by an adult."

The week-long hearing was filled with experts -- educational, psychological, criminal. But the most anticipated witness took the stand on the final day of the hearing: teacher Sherri Jones. And the Ferrari's attorney, John Zimring, got right to it, asking her if she was the one talking about a man's gentials.

"I can't recall if I said it or not," Jones said.

If she was the one talking about drinking.

"I may have," she said.

If she was one of the people joking about Stefan eating out of the trash.

"I don't recall saying that," Jones said.

But after Sherri Jones is made again and again to listen to the audio, her answers changed.

"And that was your voice?" Zimring asked.

"Yes, it was," Jones answered.

"So you did say that?" Zimring asked.

"It came out of my mouth, yes," Jones replied.

"You said that did you not?" Zimring asked.

"Most likely, yeah," said Jones.

"It was you wasn't it?" Zimring asked.

"Umm, that could have been what I said, yeah," Jones admitted.

Jones denies ever hitting or threatening to hit Stefan -- and the judge did not find that she did. His decision stated only that Stefan was injured at school by an adult.

"That is your voice is it not?" Zimring asked when the voice on the tape referred to striking Stefan.

"No, it's not," Jones said.

"Whose was it?" Zimring pressed on.

"I don't know," Jones said.

"You are under testimony to his honor!" Zimring said.

"I do not know whose voice is on that tape," Jones said. "It is not me."

"So you felt empowered to take advantage of these children with disabilities?" Zimring asked.

"No," Jones replied.

Atlanta school attorneys gave Sherri Jones a chance to explain herself.

"I understand how it may come across," Jones said. "But I love what I do, and this will not stop me from continuing to do what I do for the rest of my life."

In his ruling, Judge Gatto used the word appalling -- given that Stefan is non-verbal, and did not have the ability to inform his parents of his mistreatment by employees on October 21. The school's failure to take the steps to discipline the adult educators involved leads the court to conclude that the schools can only promise more of the same.

"He's a different child," Carolyn Ferrari said.

Seven months after he was injured, Stefan Ferrari has made tremendous strides, and is excelling at his new private school. Failed by those who were supposed to support and protect her son, a determined mother did something no one thought could be done -- she gave him a voice.

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