A teacher’s aide who was fired this month says handicapped students have been physically and emotionally abused at Lakes Middle School.
Parents of several students met with school and welfare officials Tuesday, seeking assurance that their children are not being mistreated as Jerry Roth alleges.
Some parents reluctantly have come to believe Roth. One who has no doubts is Terry Burke, who said she also has witnessed abuse.
Like Roth, she contends that teacher Chris Gooley and her three other aides have wrongly isolated children and violently restrained them.
“They call him a disgruntled employee. Bull,” said Burke, who provides full-time care for a 14-year-old boy who attends the school.
“These people can drag children, drag them, take their head and smash it into the carpet.”
School district officials say they investigated Roth’s complaints about other staff members and found them groundless.
“They love those kids,” said Kelly Ostrom, personnel coordinator for the district.
There are five full-time special needs students at Lakes. Only two remain in Gooley’s classroom, and that is with a full-time monitor present to watch how they are treated, said one parent.
She said parents of all five children attended Tuesday’s meeting and were upset.
“We wanted everybody fired,” said the mother who does not want her son back at Lakes. “The only thing they would agree on would be to send their staff to behavior management training class.”
Parents agreed to meet with school officials within the next two weeks to Aide discuss their individual children, she said.
Lakes Principal Larry Hill would not comment on the case, saying before the parent meeting that it is a personnel matter. Gooley has been instructed by Hill not to discuss the matter.
Hill put Roth on probation in November, saying in two letters to Roth that the aide failed to follow Gooley’s instructions and became angry when told to change his ways.
Roth, 48, was fired Feb. 4. He will appear before the Coeur d’Alene School Board on Monday to challenge his dismissal.
Superintendent of Schools Doug Cresswell said that meeting will be closed, although Roth wants it to be open to the public.
Added Cresswell: “I thought it was interesting that his claims of abuse emerged the day after he was fired, not before that.”
Roth insists that he did bring it up - raising the concerns with Hill and a district administrator last fall. That’s why he was put on probation, he said.
He said he is fighting to protect children with severe mental and physical handicaps who can’t speak for themselves. Some of them have been placed in choke holds for such minor matters as refusing to wash their hands, he said.
One boy, he said, “was held down so long the imprint of the carpet was on his cheek.”
That boy has a severe learning disability. Roth made a 35-minute audiotape of what he says is the boy banging repeatedly on the door of the “time-out” room, which is an enclosure within the classroom.
The child’s treatment plan calls for him to be isolated for no more than 15 minutes, Roth said.
Roth said the boy “has not left that room since after Thanksgiving, except to go to the bathroom.”
His mother pulled him from the school after she learned from Roth that he had been fired.
She said her son responded well to Roth, who worked with him full time last year and successfully used incentives, not discipline, to control him. She said she has not personally witnessed abuse.
The boy sometimes got in trouble for pulling the fire alarm at the school, Roth said. On Oct. 9, Roth confronted him after he had done that in the gym.
“He was giving me the sign that says ‘I’m sorry’ (crossing his chest) when (another aide) ran up, held him to the floor, sat on top of him with a knee in his back,” Roth said.
While Ostrom said staff members used only accepted restraining techniques, Burke found them too rough.
“They put their knee in their backs, put their hands behind their backs,” Burke said. “It was ridiculous, like something you’d do to a rapist.”
Burke said Roth was the only staff member dealing with Lakes’ handicapped students whom she saw consistently show affection. She has taken the boy she cares for out of the school, vowing not to return him while Gooley is there.
While she doesn’t think the boy was physically hurt, Burke said he has been withdrawn and depressed by the treatment at Lakes.
Another couple said they were hesitant to believe that their son was abused. But they were convinced by Roth’s daily records of what went on in the classroom, and by their son’s behavior at home.
They took him out of school for several days after Roth was fired. But he’s back in the classroom, his mother said Tuesday.
“They’re being really good right now,” she said of the school staff. “We feel he’s safer now that all of this has happened.”
She said a second son, who is in high school, is doing well in the special education program there.
No parents were interviewed during the school district’s Feb. 7 investigation, Ostrom said, because none had filed complaints. She spoke with the special education teacher, her three aides, the principal, vice principal, counselor and a library assistant.
Anne Egbert, a staff member with the independent Marly Community Care social agency, said she has heard no other complaints about the Coeur d’Alene district’s programs for the handicapped.
Egbert and an attorney from the advocacy group Co-Ad were among those who attended Tuesday’s closed meeting with school officials.
Roth said he’s worked for the district for five years, first as a part-time aide. He became a full-time employee in fall of 1995.
He said he is certified as a teacher in Honduras. But the Coeur d’Alene district would not accept that credential, so he went to work as an aide in the handicapped classroom.
At first, he said, he wasn’t sure he’d like it.
“I didn’t know if I could handle the diaper changing and slobbering. But after two weeks, I knew that’s what I wanted to be,” he said. “These special kids touch my heart. They’re so defenseless and so lovable.”
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