In what was described as “evidence of our very worst fears coming true,” the Flagler Exceptional Student Education Advisory Council addressed allegations of an ESE teacher's abuse toward a special needs student at Belle Terre Elementary at its latest meeting on the night of Wednesday, March 20.
Dawn Starr — who has been an education advocate in Volusia County for six years and who has many clients in Flagler County — wrote an open letter to the Flagler County School District regarding the incident. The letter was published on Facebook and was first reported on by FlaglerLive.
The incident involved a fourth-grade boy who has non-verbal autism, Type 1 diabetes, seizure disorder and intellectual delays.
The child’s parent, who had concerns about her child’s behavior at school as reported by teachers and aids, sent her child to school with a hidden recording device on Feb. 19.
According to Starr’s letter, the audio appeared 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. The letter states that you can hear the student crying and banging on what is assumed to be the classroom’s door.
This was allegedly used as a form of discipline, as the student didn’t want to accompany the aid to P.E.
If true, this type of punishment is known as seclusion and under Florida Administrative rules, is illegal to use on a student with disabilities.
In addition, 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.”
Advisory Council Chairman Stephen Furnari issued a statement regarding the incident.
“If true, the incidents reported by Ms. Starr are nothing short of abhorrent,” he said. “As a parent of a non-verbal third-grade student with a developmental disability, this is the type of situation that triggers your very worst fears. Every day we hand our children off to district staff, hoping that they’ll keep our children safe with the knowledge that your child can’t tell you if they do not.”
He also called on parents to step up.
"Abusive, ableist, discriminatory behavior toward students with disabilities will persist as long as we as a group continue to tolerate it," Furnari said. "We must band together and demand as a group that we will not tolerate this in our schools.”
Lynette Shott, the executive director of student and community engagement for Flagler Schools, was present at the meeting. The district did not comment on any specifics regarding the allegation.
“The commitment was made on our part to come together for this purpose of this group because we want to make sure that we have that transparent conversation," Shott said. "I think that it is critical we continue to do that and look to find solutions, and that we cannot ignore anything that is a concern and that we continue to very honestly come forward.”
Parents and others who were in attendance at Wednesday night's meeting were upset with how the situation is being handled as well as the district's reluctance to comment. Starr, who was also in attendance, said she will continue to stand by what she wrote.
“My credibility and integrity have been put in doubt,” Starr said at the meeting. “I listened to a recording that another staff at the district listened to. I wrote what I heard, and I will stand by every single word of it from now until the day I get put down.”