School Guards Against Abuse But District Stands By Firing Of Aide Who Raised Allegations

The Coeur d’Alene School District says Jerry Roth is a disgruntled man who lost his job because he failed to follow instructions.

But as the fired teacher’s aide prepares to argue Monday for his reinstatement before the school board, district officials are doing what Roth says he was fired for requesting.

They’re taking steps to make sure that disabled children aren’t abused at Lakes Middle School.

“From what I’ve heard, the district is actually sitting up and listening on this one,” said Roth’s attorney, George Conrad. “It’s an ugly charge.”

Roth claims that mentally and physically disabled children have been hurt in the course of restraining or disciplining them. He’s not alone in describing young teenagers’ arms being held behind their backs, heads forced to the ground, and extended isolation in a “timeout” room.

District officials said they could find no evidence of abuse, but have asked state Health and Welfare officials to investigate further.

This week, special education supervisor Patrick Pickens and other school officials met with the worried and outraged parents of the five seriously disabled boys who attend Lakes.

Some report that their children have became violent or withdrawn in recent months at Lakes.

The school officials promised to:

Bring in an outside expert to evaluate the program. Parents must agree with the choice, said Lisa Richard-Evans, a private caseworker who works with three of the five families.

Meet with parents to discuss the individual plans that are supposed to guide each child’s education. Some parents complain that children were treated in ways they didn’t agree to during earlier discussions of the plans, such as the use of “timeout.”

Take “appropriate action” against any employee found to be abusive.

Put consulting teachers or administrators in the classroom as monitors for the time being. That’s already started. “My shift is Monday,” said Pickens.

The monitoring is a comfort to Kathy Dalberg, whose son Phillip is there. “I know right now that things are really, really good in the classroom.”

However, parents or guardians of two boys have not returned their children to the class.

Kyle Timboe isn’t there. His full-time caregiver, Terry Burke, said she has witnessed abuses like those Roth has described: Children dragged and arm-twisted. Kyle suffered depression and seizures as a result, she said.

“They’re just not listening,” Burke said of school officials. “It’s a coverup.”

Roth and Burke both said that no investigators have talked to them. Nor have any quizzed the other parents, such as Mishelle and Steven Bowan.

Mishelle Bowan said their son, Chris, has been abusive with his favorite stuffed animal and the family dog for seven months. When Roth told her about the alleged abuse at school, Bowan quizzed her son, who is the only child in the class who can talk.

Chris Bowan is autistic, and often communicates best through play-acting.

“We ask him, can you show Mom and Dad with your bear what happens to you? He’ll pick his bear up by the neck and force it into the wall and say ‘You stay there, don’t turn around and move.’ Or he’ll slap the bear and say ‘You don’t say that anymore.”’

Roth had told her that Chris was grabbed by the neck, forced into a corner and told not to move. Mishelle Bowan said she has seen the other teachers’ aides, but not Roth, use what she thought was unnecessary force to restrain a child.

“From everything I’ve seen of him he’s been a very caring, loving, compassionate individual. I’ve never seen him yell at the students as I have some of the other aides.”

School officials say some of alleged abuse may simply be misinterpretation of unavoidable physical restraint. If a 180-pound teenager flings himself onto the floor of a crowded hallway and goes limp, said Lakes principal Larry Hill, he must be dragged out of the way.

No students at Lakes have been hurt in such altercations, Pickens said, but staff members often are. One boy grabbed bleach from a janitor’s cart and sprayed it in Gooley’s eyes.

Physical restraint “isn’t pretty,” Pickens said, and should be used by staff members only as a last resort. “If you reach that point, you’ve blown it.”

A skilled teacher can calm students with the right words or touch, said Rick Dahlberg, a behavior consultant who works for the Coeur d’Alene district.

Carl Mickelsen, a Moscow attorney who advocates for the disabled, pointed out that even the state mental hospital at Orofino has nearly eliminated the use of restraint.

Mickelsen sat in on Tuesday’s meeting between the Lakes parents and school officials.

“Neither the time-out room or physical restraints in and of themselves are wrong,” he said. “But if that’s creeping up all the time, then they’re not managing things correctly.”

Kathy Dalberg has no reason to worry about her son’s treatment at Lakes, but she did take Phillip out of school for a few days after Roth was fired.

“I had to find out myself if the accusations were true. I have to believe some of them, because there have been witnesses,” she said.

She was left wondering if Phillip’s anger and habit of throwing things, developed over the past four months, was related to his treatment at school.

“Jerry told me Phillip’s been drug across the floor for noncompliance, jerked out of a chair, put in time out for more than 20 minutes, forced up to a sink. I didn’t like to hear that,” Dalberg said.

“But you know there’s always two sides. I believe they probably happen, but maybe not quite as exaggerated as he says.”

The county prosecutor has said he cannot act on abuse charges unless Health and Welfare uncovers evidence of abuse.

Chris Nelson, whose stepson is in the class, remains puzzled that Health and Welfare investigators aren’t taking more of an interest in what Roth and Burke have to say, or in what Chris Bowan told his parents about being hit.

“We honestly feel that the kids are being mistreated,” he said.

The Nelsons have two disabled sons and experience with a number of schools. They say the atmosphere at Lakes is more stressed than in other special education classrooms.

Nelson attributes that to Gooley’s performance.

“I personally don’t think she’s good at the job she’s doing,” he said. “She’s disorganized. She’s the hardest to deal with we’ve come across.”

The public will not get to hear Gooley’s side of the story, at least not on Monday.

If she speaks at Monday’s school board meeting, it will only be to comment on Roth’s performance. Besides, the meeting will be closed. Teachers’ aides, unlike teachers, cannot challenge their dismissals at a formal, open hearing.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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