Both the Flagler County School District and the state Department of Education investigated a parent’s allegation that a non-verbal autistic student was improperly secluded by being locked in a classroom, with lights off, last winter at Belle Terre Elementary School, and that staff would allegedly make negative comments about the boy.
The case came to the school district’s attention after a parent had sent her son to school with a recording device that captured conversations by staff. The parent was represented by Dawn Starr, an advocate for parents of special education students, who publicized the alleged issue extensively on her Facebook page, leading to a discussion of the matter at a public meeting of the 19-member Flagler Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Council and, subsequently, the investigations.
The state’s Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services found “insufficient evidence” that district staff secluded a child or inappropriately used seclusion.
Locally, however, School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said the issue was investigated. “There were actions taken with respect to the employees, as a result of some of the information,” Gavin said. “There were statements that inappropriate statements were made. Well, we verified inappropriate statements were made.” As a result, “we followed our discipline process that we utilized with our employees to mete out whatever was going to be the reprimand as a result of that investigation and the statements.”
Two of the four employees named in the complaint have not been retained for the 2019-20 school year.
The parent’s complaint named staffers Isaiah Gutierrez, Arnesia Powell, Jana O’Neill and Gloria Valiente-Ortegon, according to documents of the district’s investigation. Gutierrez and Powell finished out the year but their contracts were not renewed.
“The recording was for an extended lengthy period of time,” Gavin said. “The school district has only heard bits and pieces. It’s what was played to Dr. [Terence] Culver when the parent came to raise the concerns, so what was investigated by the district were the concerns that the parent raised to the district related to those portions of the recording that were provided to the district, because we didn’t have a copy of it.” Culver is the principal at Belle Terre Elementary.
Powell was a paraprofessional assigned to O’Neill’s class when the student in question was present. District documents listed concerns after an administrator observed her in the classroom, such as “huffing and puffing,” “rolling eyes, using a raised voice while interacting with students” and interacting with one particular student differently than with others. The documents also note that she would speak “negatively about coworkers to other coworkers” and speak “negatively about students in front of students.” Powell stated to an administrator that all of the concerns were “lies,” according to the documentation, and herself made allegations against other staff members in the unit. She was the only staffer to have a “success plan” as a result of the investigation.
Powell was removed from that class subsequent to the investigation, at least when the boy was present.
Culver met with Isaiah Gutierrez. The principal’s “outcome of meeting” summary after the meeting read: “Be careful what comes out of your mouth with kids. Isaiah notes he has learned from this experience and grown. He will be mindful of what comes out of his mouth, and he will make sure this does not happen again. He will speak to these students keeping in mind how he would want his own child spoken to.”
In response to questions posed him during the district investigation, Gutierrez wrote that “If there is any negative remarks from me on the tape, please know that I am extremely apologetic. I do not remember saying anything negative to a student. I would love the opportunity to speak with the parent and share this.” Gutierrez added: “The staff has so much passion for the students. They love them.” He calls staffers “angels to these kids” and adds: “We sometimes get frustrated with the behaviors of the kids, such as spitting on us or kicking us. We have to make an effort to be calm and take a break if we need to.”
Culver also met with Valiente-Ortegan (the name as spelled in district documents), who, according to the summary of the meeting, was counseled to “lower rather than raise her voice when dealing with frustrating situations,” and to “be careful with what you say to the kids and how we treat them.” The staffer, the document states, “notes she only meant to change the student’s behavior. She apologizes and will try to do her best moving forward.” The summary concludes: “We will monitor moving forward.”
Culver also met with O’Neill, the teacher. According to the documented “outcome of meeting” summary of the meeting, “Staff is on notice to be aware of what is said in front of students and how students are treated. Jana [O’Neill] notes that they were not laughing at [the student in question] but at the situation of the behaviors of the student in general. Dr. C [meaning Culver] asks that Jana hold herself and all staff accountable, and report to administration as needed.” The principal was to set up the student with a paraprofessional trained to care with his medical needs, according to the documentation.
O’Neill was asked to respond to the same set of four questions or items investigators sent staffers on the case, starting with “whether you were aware of student [name redacted] being left alone in a classroom and if so, what you think was happening (or what was the intent),” and whether the staffer heard any negative comments made about the student. O’Neill, like the others, was asked to respond to the complainant’s allegations and give her perspective on the average day in the unit. “I have been advised not to talk to anyone without my lawyer,” O’Neill hand-wrote on the sheet listing the questions, listing her attorney’s name and phone number.
The name provided on the district’s documentation is different from that of the lawyer–Charlene Hamilton–who subsequently wrote FlaglerLive, the Palm Coast Observer and Dawn Starr, threatening a “defamation of character lawsuit” in defense of O’Neill and stating that O’Neill “has over twenty-five years of experience as an educator of children with various special needs without any disciplinary history whatsoever.”
FlaglerLive had published Starr’s open letter to the district–her account of the seclusion–as a signed opinion, which she based on the parent’s recordings, without naming any names. (The attorney’s letter inaccurately claimed the piece was not published as an opinion.) The Observer reported on the Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Council meeting–a public meeting–where the matter was discussed, as matters of concern to parents with students in exceptional education frequently are.
Hamilton, in her letter, then made several allegations about the child at the center of the issue, saying her client “has abided by school procedure, and never isolated or touched the child even when he is hitting, biting, or spitting at her. Instead, she uses her personal funds to buy him no sugar lollipops to persuade him when he is misbehaving.”
Gavin, in an interview, told the parent that she was not permitted to record another person without their knowledge. Still, the recording was a key tool in the investigation. “When we receive and when somebody plays for us a recording,” Gavin said, “we have that information, but then they’re not going to be by themselves, usually when these recordings take place.” Meaning that the recording is used merely as a guidepost, not as evidence. “So we’re going to be able to verify whatever is contained on that recording by then investigating, by going and getting statements from people who were present during these statements. So that’s what we’re going to utilize if we’re going to do any kind of reprimands or anything. It would not be based on the recording, it would be based on our independent investigation with witnesses to establish and corroborate whatever is contained on there.”
Gavin added, regarding the recording and the open letter it led to, “I’m not going to say that there’s gross mischaracterizations or lies, what I will say is things are taken out of context, because when you have an audio recording, it’s not in context.”