When disability and abuse intersect, we take action.

Georgia school found liable for disability-abuse by teacher

Full Decision

The following are excerpts taken from the opinion of the administrative law judge
in the case of A.W. v. Fulton County School District.

The lengthy opinion describes years of abuse by a special education teacher
against students with developmental disabilities, of which administrators were
aware but failed to take action to stop it. 

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Alex, one student who suffered such abuse
with resulting post traumatic stress disorder.

Excerpts from judge’s opinion:

With respect to the general classroom environment, the undisputed evidence is

that Pickens would scream at all the children, including Alex, every day. She would burp

in their faces, shake and press her breasts in their faces, and press her buttocks into their

faces and pass gas.

In terms of physical abuse, Pickens would slam Alex into the lockers almost every

morning. Alex, who was walking independently and carrying a backpack at this time,

was very slow getting from the bus to Pickens' classroom because of his gaited walk.

His slow pace appeared to frustrate Pickens, and she would shove him face first into the

lockers, hard enough to make a loud noise, in an apparent attempt to get him to hurry.

On one occasion, when Alex was moving too slowly from the bus to the school, Pickens

pushed him down on the concrete, where he fell and scraped his hand. At the end of the

school day, when Alex was often tired and would be slow to pack up his things, Pickens

would get frustrated and "throw his bookbag off his desk and tell him to go get it and get

on the bus."


In addition to the pushing, Pickens mistreated Alex in other ways. For example,

approximately twice a week, Pickens would not allow Alex to go to lunch because he had

not finished his work. Alex would either not have any lunch or he would have to eat a

peanut butter sandwich, which he did not like, when the lunch period was over. In

addition, one day during the 2006-2007 school year, Alex participated in the Special

Olympics, completing a fifty-meter walk and winning a medal. After returning to

Hopewell on the bus, Alex was very tired and could not get off the bus by himself.

Pickens left him on the bus and would not help him or allow any of the parapros to offer

him assistance. Contrary to Pickens' wishes, Grover went back on the bus and helped

Alex walk back to his classroom, which made Pickens angry. (Ex. P-5, at 87; Tr. 208,



Perhaps the worse abuse of Alex by Pickens was when she isolated him and

restrained him in a dark, windowless room, which happened on at least three occasions

during the 2006-2007 school year. Susan Tallant, an experienced special education

teacher who began teaching at Hopewell during the 2006-2007 school year, observed

Alex alone in the adaptive art room across from his classroom on at least two occasions

and alone in the handicapped bathroom down the hall, which doubled as a storage room,

on one occasion. Both rooms were windowless and the lights were turned out.


In one instance, Tallant entered what she believed was the empty art room and heard a noise.

She discovered Alex in the darkened room and was startled. He was strapped into a

Rifton chair, which had been inclined and pushed into the corner, facing the wall. When

she asked him if he was in trouble, he nodded his head, "yes." When Tallant saw Alex in

the darkened handicapped restroom/storage room, he was sitting in a Rifton "potty" chair,

which was inclined at a 45-degree angle with the tray locked into place. He was left

alone there for at least thirty minutes. (Tr. 37-39, 41-42, 44, 76-78)


Tallant considered Pickens' conduct toward her students to be abusive and

testified that "everyone" on G Hall knew that Pickens was isolating children in empty

rooms and strapping them into Rifton chairs. She stated that the other educators would

have "had to be deaf, dumb, and blind" not to have seen it. In fact, all the witnesses who

either testified at the hearing or whose statements have been made part of the record

agreed that Pickens frequently used isolation and restraint with her students. Although

Alex, Aaron H. and Garrett L. were isolated and restrained by Pickens, Jake M. was the

most frequent target of this treatment. The undisputed evidence in the record shows that

Jake M. was isolated in a Rifton chair alone in a room with the door shut for several days

per week, sometimes for a few hours and sometimes for most of the school day. (Ex. P-

5, at 251-52, 304, 312-14, 381; Tr. 37, 45, 112)


At the end of the school year, on May 21, 2007, Tallant found Jake in the adaptive

P.E. room with the door shut. He was alone, strapped in the Rifton chair and "covered in

feces from head to toe, all over the chair, all over the floor."


Tallant testified that the stench was overwhelming and could be detected outside the room.

The next day, Tallant wrote a written statement and gave it to White, the department head.

White and Tallant took her statement to Merritt, the IST. Both Merritt and White asked

Tallant if she knew what a written report of Pickens meant and whether she was

"ready for this." She said she was and they took the written statement to Boyd. 15 (Tr. 48-52)


Tallant's written statement, unlike all the past verbal reports, triggered a formal

investigation by the School District, which was conducted by BDI. BDI' s investigative

report revealed the long history of abusive conduct by Pickens toward Jake M., as well as

Pickens' mistreatment and abuse of other students, including Alex. It further revealed

that the abuse was known and reported by the G Hall staff, but that Boyd refused to act

on their reports. The BDI investigator, Joseph Umbarger, testified that even after

conducting investigations for thirty-five years, this investigation was particularly difficult

because of the "outrageous," almost "unbelievable" information that it uncovered.


Pettes, the School District's Special Education Coordinator, agreed that the School District

was aware that Pickens was hurting children for many years and yet allowed her to remain

 as a teacher at Hopewell. 

* * *

Therefore, the Court concludes, based on a preponderance of the evidence, that

Alex's placement in Picken's MOID classroom was inappropriate, that Alex was

physically and psychologically abused by Pickens during the 2006-2007 school year, and

that such abuse has had a lasting effect on his progress in school. Accordingly, Alex is

entitled to compensatory education and services under IDEA.






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