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The Case of an Allegedly Illegal Use of Seclusion On a Non-Verbal, Autistic 4th Grader at Belle Terre Elementary

| March 20, 2019

ese seclusion incident

The alleged incident involves a 4th grader. (Patrick Marioné)

Dawn Starr has been an education advocate for six years in Volusia County, with many clients in Flagler County. She wrote the following open letter to the Flagler County School District regarding an incident involving a special education student at Belle Terre Elementary last month. It was originally posted on Facebook earlier this month and has been edited for publication here. 

The Flagler ESE Parent Advisory Council, a 19-member board consisting of 12 parents and seven school staffers, including the ESE Director and the Director of Student and Community Engagement, is meeting at 6 p.m. this evening at the Government Services Building in Bunnell (third floor), where the incident may be discussed, according to Board Chairman Stephen Furnari. “While I don’t believe this behavior is the norm for the vast majority of ESE professionals in the district,” Furnari wrote in response to the Starr allegations, “nor do I believe that this is what district administration stands for, it does shed light on a very dark corner of ESE in Flagler Schools.” Since the matter is headed for litigation, school district representatives are limited in what they may say.

The district this afternoon issued the following statement: “We acknowledge the concern this allegation has created. We cannot comment about an ongoing investigation or specific situation. However, all allegations are taken seriously and immediate steps are taken to thoroughly investigate the matter and ensure the safety of all students and staff at all times. It is our priority to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. We hold employees to the professional code of ethics and appropriate discipline is imposed if the allegations are founded.“

This evening’s meeting is open to the public.

By Dawn Starr

I am a private-pay special education advocate in Volusia County.  I have a client in Flagler County with a child in 4th grade. This little boy has non-verbal autism, Type 1 diabetes, a seizure disorder and intellectual delays. He is able to move about independently, requires three to four insulin deliveries at school per day, and requires constant supervision due to his health conditions.

On Feb. 19, the parent, having concerns about her child’s behavior at school as reported by the teachers and aides, affixed a recording device on her child that day and the following day. I have listened to these tapes. They begin before the child is at school, seemingly in the car with the parent. Any reasonable person would conclude that they are made during a school day. Altogether, there are about 12 hours of recordings beginning with the parent dropping the student off and ending when the student is picked up.

The audio captured on Feb. 19 appears to verify that the student was left locked in his classroom with the lights off, alone, for 35 minutes by a classroom aid, reportedly at the direction of the ESE teacher (ESE is the acronym for exceptional student education.) During that time, all you can hear is the student crying and banging on what we assume is the classroom door. The rest of the room is silent. This was used as a form of discipline, possibly detention, as the student didn’t want to accompany the aid to P.E. He was posing no obvious threat of harm to himself or anyone else.

There are alleged admissions by who the parent identifies as the ESE Teacher stating that she has done this on previous occasions, saying that she just, “lets him ball his face off.” Remember, he is non-verbal, so he cannot articulate to anyone what is happening. There is evidence that multiple staff members were aware of this situation and did not report it.

In addition to the seclusion, others on the tape, likely school staff members, are heard saying things like, “yes, he’s here, unfortunately,” when the student’s name is called, and “I would beat him until he stopped if he was my kid.” Another person, believed to be a paraprofessional, is heard saying that “standing next to any of them is punishment.” And yet another paraprofessional, identified by name in the recording, is heard whispering to the student that she is “sorry everyone is so nasty” to him. I myself could identify the voice of someone I know to be a district employee, making a statement about how low-functioning the student is. That staff member is laughing along with other adults in the room after the comment was made.

As a parent of special needs children, hearing this broke my heart as it should yours.

Restraint and seclusion of disabled students is carefully regulated and discouraged. I have made available on my Facebook Group, Volusia County Special Needs Parent Group, several documents regarding federal, state and local legislation and guidance publications about restraint and seclusion. Seclusion should only be used if the child presents a danger to himself and/or others. Any incidents wherein the student was secluded must be immediately reported to the administration and the parent, and the state Department of Education must be informed. None of this was done.

To make matters much worse, the parent went to the school and met with the principal, who listened to the tape. As a result, he told the parent, as the parent has reported to me, that the school is in possession of the videotape outside the classroom but wouldn’t agree to show it to the parent unless and until the parent reveled what her intent was regarding the audio tape. He allegedly wanted the parent to return the student to school in the same classroom and only stated he would reassign the aid. The parent has not returned the child to school since February 20.

The parent was then sent an on-line complaint form to complete and submit to a district staff member. She did so on February 22 and has not heard from anyone at the school or district since.

As the family’s Advocate I am currently preparing a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights and the State Department of Education. Obviously, in addition to pursuing this with the proper oversight agencies, the family and I wish to make this travesty public. While the audio tapes are not admissible in court, we feel it is imperative that the public know the kind of people that Flagler County School District deems suitable to educate and protect our most vulnerable students.

This kind of callous treatment happens daily to our children. This parent just happened to get it on tape. As an Advocate, I would like to see this case spur an effort to get video and audio cameras installed in all separate ESE classrooms across the state.

We are demanding that an independent investigation be conducted not only into the alleged uses of illegal seclusion, but also the lack of reporting the seclusion, as required by law, and the failure of the district to appropriately respond to the parent’s written complaint and evidence.

The parent has filed a report that is being investigated by the Department of Children and Families.

Dawn Starr runs Starr Consulting and Education Services in Volusia. She may be reached by email here.

30 Responses for “The Case of an Allegedly Illegal Use of Seclusion On a Non-Verbal, Autistic 4th Grader at Belle Terre Elementary”

  1. T.J. says:

    As the child of someone who works in education and that person deals with special needs students daily, this breaks my heart. this gives off some judge rotenberg educational center vibes and I really think somebody should investigate and dig deeper into this, it feels sinister.

  2. Derrick Redder says:

    As the proud Grandpa of a loving little girl who is also non verbal I am outraged over the way this school has allegedly treated this child. If what is stated is true the teacher staff and administration needs to be disiplined and removed. No if and or butts.

  3. Chet Lagana says:

    As a parent of a special needs child I am outraged. This cannot and should not ever happen. After reading this story I was disgusted with the people that may have done this to a child who cannot defend there self.
    Thankyou to the advocate for standing up for them. We to had to hire one to help us from getting run over by the Flagler school system.
    I realized that there tape can’t be used in court but there name when found out should be relived and let the chips fall where the may.

  4. worried grandma says:

    Breaks my heart for this child. Definitely not professional, shameful. If it were their child it wouldn’t be acceptable. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Tager handles this.

  5. Mary says:

    I am in shock!!!! My heart is breaking for this mom & her child. Having been an Aide for many, many years for a Pre-K ESE classroom Never and I mean Never would we have treated any child this way. Never would we have left him alone!!! “seclusion of disabled students is carefully regulated and discouraged”.. R u kidding me. It should not need to be regulated! It should Never be allowed. It sounds like these teachers, aide, administrators involved should not be in the schools at all. I have dealt with many situations with our kids over the years and had only love, compassion, & understanding for these children. Good for that mom for taping what was happening to her child. Maybe all classrooms should be equipt with cameras (like many daycares) so parents and watch and hear what’s happening in the classroom. I bet this type of behavior would stop! I am sick to my stomach!!!

  6. Dave says:

    Shame! This has been going on for years in Flagler County!, it’s time these so called teachers lose their ability to work with children for the rest of their lives! People like these child abusing “teachers” are worse than brazen criminals because they are wolves in Shepard’s clothing. I personally would like to see jail time for several of the monsters involved!

  7. Mark says:

    Excellent article. Parents, take heed! You go to school to learn not to be babysat.

  8. Parent Grandparent says:

    In this day and age of technology, we should have cameras or webcams in every classroom so that parents, grandparents and guardians can go online see what is going on in the classroom at any given time. This may prevent some of these despicable actions, and also may help in dealing with all types of discipline and/or behavioral issues by both staff and students.

  9. Underdog says:

    Way to go Dawn Starr! There needs to be more people like you and “Mom” out there. Whatever political, public or employment pressure you face by disclosing this, just know you did the right thing.

  10. Mary Fusco says:

    As a parent and grandparent, this is an absolutely horrible story.. However, why would a child with SO MANY health issues be dropped off for 12 hours a day? What the hell are the parents thinking. It’s amazing that animals take care of their young but humans think it is someone else’s job. In this day and age, our children and our elderly are doomed.

  11. Percy's mother says:

    1. If I were of the age to have school-aged children, I would NEVER, NEVER, NEVER have them in public schools.

    2. The torture and abuse situation as described in this article should be thoroughly investigated and abuse charges should be filed.

    3. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THE “ADMINISTRATORS” in these schools? The teachers in public schools only have minimal shoddy education at best and most likely would be unable to make it in the real world, so I don’t expect much from the teachers in this county, but the administrators should KNOW ABOUT AUTISM AND ITS MANIFESTATIONS AS WELL AUTISM SPECTRUM.

    This reminds me of a situation about 20 years ago wherein a teacher was joking about putting puppies and kittens in a microwave. (that was a family matter between the school and my family).

    5. I think all teachers and administrators in public schools are for the most part losers and sick individuals unable to make it in the private sector, which is why I would never NEVER have a child of mine in a public school . . . why? to be taught by losers?

    This story is extremely shocking and upsetting because this child has been abused on many occasions without anyone to speak for him or protect him.

    The ESE person and other individuals involved should be FIRED as well as charges filed against them for abuse. This story is disgusting. I thought my opinion of the Flagler County School System couldn’t go any lower but I was incorrect.

    And please, I don’t want to hear from any teachers about the comments I’ve written. It won’t change my opinions at all, and in fact, any negative comments about what I’ve written about teachers and school administrators in this county may spur even more negative comments on my part.

    I hope to see another followup article to let us know what action has been taken.

  12. Kendall says:

    Percy’s Mother, most teachers are hard working and well trained. Do t paint them all with a broad brush because the ESE dept and administration at BTES are horrible.

    Attitudes like yours are one of the biggest challenges teachers encounter.

  13. Ritchie says:

    I believe it is fair to lock the culprit in a dark room, no water, no food for a whole day. Give them a taste of their medicine.

  14. Mary Fusco says:

    @Percy’s mom. Sadly, parents today have totally opted out of raising children they bring into this world. They are in daycare ASAP. They then think that it is the school’s responsibility to feed their brats 3 meals a day, medicate them, make sure they have proper clothing, mentor them, counsel them, etc. etc. In my day, parents fed their children breakfast before school, made sure they had all their supplies and were wearing the proper clothing for the weather. After school, I gave them a snack and believe it or not, fed them dinner, supervised their homework and made sure they were bathed and slept enough to be able to learn the next day. Let’s stop blaming the teachers and look to negligent parents. Just saying.. BTW, I am NOT a teacher. It is NOT the school’s job to raise children. It is their job to teach children. The rest is up to the so called parents.

  15. Agkistrodon says:

    It is SAD that Any one would think this is appropriate for ANY child. Perhaps it is time to reconsider WHO we allow to be a teacher and work with children. After all Most recent MEDICAL study shows the Human brain is NOT finished developing until mid 30’s, which is what is Now considered ADULTHOOD.

  16. Anonymous says:

    And these are clooege educated and graduate school educators? They are a joke and a disgrace to education . My grandson has a speech Impairment , he has a difficult time pronouncing his words but he is getting better. Never in my life would I ever make a joke about his speech or any handicap human being . This school district is a disgrace and they want to be paid like professionals ? Look up compassion , love , and hope before you teach again

  17. tony says:

    It is against the law to record anyone without them knowing it. So good luck with that. smh

  18. Anonymous says:

    Mary- Unfortunately medications for this child are costly as well as the cost of therapies that many of our children on the spectrum need. This requires a job and health insurance. This parent OBVIOUSLY cares or she would not have put a recorder on her child. She is in tune enough with him to know something was wrong. Financially this may be her only recourse. And ALL kids are entitled to an education. My special needs son is at a great school and I have no other choice than to leave him there from 7 til 4:30. I need the income and I know he is getting an education and is well-loved by his teachers.
    This article made me so upset and saddened by the way this child was treated and obviously there have to be others. I hope everyone is held to the high standards that the state sets for teachers and is held responsible for his/her actions

  19. Robjr says:

    That teachers feet need to be agitating the sidewalk, quick, fast and in a hurry.

  20. Lois Benvenuto says:

    Mary – First of all there’s no school that has kids in their care for 12 hours! Obviously the recordings were made over a few days. Secondly, regardless of his medical issues he is entitled to an education. These monsters were trusted to care for a child and chose to abuse that trust. How dare you blame the parents for someone else’s choice to do wrong!

  21. Joanne says:

    I was wondering if anyone went to the meeting last night. Did anyone from the school come and what happened. I could not make it last night, any updates?

  22. Concerned parent says:

    I am a parent but do not have a special needs child, so i’m admittedly not educated in this area. However, this gives me so many questions. Having been a teacher previously and having spent time around children with special needs in my personal life, my first thought is to acknowledge the special kind of person it takes to teach in a special needs classroom. Teaching is challenging on it’s own, but the special needs of this type of classroom – the patience and the flexibility required, the difficulty in trying to teach such a wide variety of needs at one time, the challenge of managing so many different behaviors, the physical challenges – and it’s not like teachers get paid extraordinarily well. In my experience it takes someone with a very special heart to be able to work in a classroom of this nature. I wouldn’t want to. That being said, I certainly agree this should be investigated.

    I’d also like to understand if the teacher had the necessary resources to run the classroom correctly and if the school provides the right support. And what are the rules here? If a student refuses to leave the classroom, can the student be forcefully removed? Should the teacher/aids have picked up the child and/or dragged the child to P.E? And if they attempted to remove him, would he then have caused a safety threat to himself? Maybe an aid should have remained behind to stay with the child? But then again, would that have caused there to be unfair level of support for the other kids?

    Totally agree, if the law is that parents should be notified, then they should have been notified. I don’t know the law. But, it’s easy to say how awful a situation is. It’s a lot harder to propose a solution and I’m not sure any of us can say how we would handle the same situation. I can personally say, if my 3 year old refuses to go somewhere or do something, my only option is to pick her up. This usually results in her throwing herself back and fighting me. I can’t imagine what I’d do if she was the size of a 4th grader.

  23. Concerned Citizen says:

    I’m not deeply religious but I can only hope that there is a special place in HELL for those who abuse children.

    @ Percy’s Mother

    Your attitude towards Public School Teachers is saddening. I have several friends who have devoted their career to our Children’s future. They all work tirelessly thru the year. As I write this I have a friend who went to work at 6 this morning and is currently working on lesson plans while waiting on a 7pm meeting. No 9 to 5 job there.

    Have you volunteered in our classrooms and spent time with teachers recently? I have. I know first hand the challenges in educating our youth are enormous. To say that most are losers and unable to make it in the Private Sector is insulting and demeaning.

    I am finishing up a degree and considering teaching. This is after serving in the military and having a career in Law Enforcement and Fire Fighting. Does that mean I am a looser as well?

    Mighty judgemental comments there.

  24. Jules says:

    Joanne – Re: the meeting last night, there was not a representative there from the school involved in the alleged incident, however the school board was represented. I believe that the meeting minutes will be published at some point, so that is probably the best source of information about what was talked about at the meeting. I will say that when the school board member present was questioned about why the district had been completely silent on this issue and has left parents and the public completely in the dark for many weeks now, the answer given was that the district has been advised by their legal counsel to remain silent. Also, it was revealed during the public commentary that the school staff involved in the alleged incident are still working in the school, directly with students. Business as usual.

  25. joey says:

    These are not teachers they are Parapros making about 10-11 dollars an hour. They get beat up all the time from these children. they are not trained to deal with this. Seat in for a few days and see for yourself.
    This little boy has non-verbal autism, Type 1 diabetes, a seizure disorder and intellectual delays. He is able to move about independently, requires three to four insulin deliveries at school per day, and requires constant supervision due to his health conditions. Sounds like this child needs 2 par’s watching him. If this was my child he would be with me all the time.
    Not sent to the school babysitter. I have seen these kids in 6-7th grade bang there head on the wall and on glass windows. There was a boy a few years ago at ITMS that hit the paper towel dispenser with his head till he breaks it. We have bolted desks, cabinets and toy boxes to the floor to stop them from throwing them at OTHER CHILDREN. Some of these kids are very very violent no one speaks about this. Really it’s endless what these kids have done. I think this is a cop out it’s so easy to pass judgement till you see what the deal is over there.

  26. Tyler says:

    @tony So what are you supposed to do, tell them they’re being recorded?

    In Florida, ANYONE can use video surveillance equipment to deter burglars and prevent crime.

    Abuse of mentally or physically disabled is a crime.

    With the audio, yes, it’s illegal, BUT, there are stipulations. One of them is a conversation. If there was no conversation to consent to, it’s no different than an officer’s bodycam or your dashcam.

  27. tim says:

    thank you. You get it.

  28. Recordings says:

    Before passing judgment let’s hear it for ourselves. Anyone can say I heard this. Please make it public f it is true. Otherwise this is a Salem Witch HUNT.. Oh! I saw her light a fire without a match.Look how that turned out!

  29. Another concerned parent says:

    I can say this from experience, there are many good teachers, ESE teachers, and para professionals @ BTES. Our son is a child with autism and went to school there. The problem is the principal Dr. Carver. Never had any issues until he took over.

    Also we had an ESE director Dr. Upenouer , who single handedly helped us get the accommodations he needed. After continually getting bashed by the district for trying to help all those involved, she resigned. She cared not for just the students and parents. But also knew the needs and what it took to help the teachers. All with getting opposed by the principal @ BTES and the district.

    I know cause I was there, sat in meetings not just at the school but at the district level. The problem is the continuous revolving door at THE DISTRICT LEVEL! Also not many parents being educated as their own Parental rights and rights of their children.

    The head administer (THE PRINCIPAL) @ BTES again is the problem and none of the head administrators in the district have been around in their current positions long enough to know any better. Never had any of these issues @ ITMS or MHS.

  30. Jules says:

    @Joey – You wrote, “Really it’s endless what these kids have done”. I assume you’re referring to disabled children, as “these kids”. So, because the disabled children you refer to have “done something” (according to you) you’re blaming children for being abused or mistreated by adults?! The paraprofessionals are not “the school babysitter”, as you stated. They are trained in taking care of their students, and they are an integral part of the ESE student’s school day, and their ultimate success. Most paraprofessionals have a heart for this type of work, and for helping the ESE students. I also wanted to point out that just because a student has a disability, that does not mean their time in school is a waste and they are just being babysat. They are learning and growing just like any other student.

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