UPDATED: Sept. 16, 2015 1:30 p.m.
BALTIMORE — Details about abuse and educational neglect involving students in an autism program at a Harford County elementary school are coming to light after an investigation by the Maryland Disability Law Center.
An anonymous letter sent last summer to parents of students at Hickory Elementary in Bel Air claimed the teacher and her assistants had sprayed water in students’ faces with a bottle, threatened them and chased them with smelly markers.
“What happened here was use of aversive behavior intervention techniques,” says MDLC managing attorney and special education expert Leslie Seid Margolis.
“And these are kids with autism who all have pretty significant sensory issues, so, you know, loud noises, smells, they are very sensitive to that,” according to Margolis.
One student, MDLC found, was often physically separated from the rest of his class and penned in with furniture.
Classes were sometimes led by untrained or minimally trained support personnel with little or no oversight from the certified teacher.
The investigation found that there was “a systematic breakdown in oversight and accountability” at the school and at the county’s central office.
“The autism program supervisor was a speech pathologist… she had no background in autism,” Margolis tells WNEW. “The principal didn’t have a special education background and relied on the assistant principal, who had a background in special education, but couldn’t really tell me what constituted a good education plan. It was her job to know what constituted a good education plan.”
So, Margolis says, “at every level… there was such a lack of training and support.”
According to a statement from Jillian V. Lader, a spokeswoman for Harford County Public Schools, HCPS has “worked collaboratively with the Maryland Disability Law Center in addressing the issues that were identified in their report and continue to do so.”
The autism program has been expanded, and is now located at Roye-Williams Elementary, Darlington Elementary, Forest Hill Elementary, Patterson Mill Middle and Fallston High, in addition to Hickory Elementary.
The school system is also working with two board certified behavior analysts “to ensure fidelity to the instructional programming.”
All teachers, related service providers, and support staff are participating in on-going professional development.
Margolis says the outside resources are a necessary step.
“You can’t fix it in a three-hour training,” she says. “This is going to be an ongoing, longer-term problem to fix.”
Former Hickory Elementary principal Jeanette Jennings tells The Baltimore Sun that she was placed on administrative leave in October 2014 through February, and then retired. Other staff members also were disciplined by the school district, according to Jennings.
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