Parent of special needs child allegedly abused addresses school board after meeting adjourns
By Kim Swindell Wood | January 11, 2019 12:57 pm
Last Updated: January 13, 2019 at 7:01 am
The following is a statement released by the White County School Board about the alleged abuse of a special needs student that reportedly occurred in November 2018, which was read during the Jan. 10, 2019, meeting. Following the school board’s press release will be a statement issued by the child’s mother, Lisa Blanton Eller. Eller read her statement after the board meeting was officially adjourned.
White County School Board
“On 11.7.18, the administration received a report that a Woodland Park teacher may have mistreated a student in her classroom. School administrators immediately directed the employees who reported these concerns to call the Department of Children’s Services and to make an official report of suspected abuse. At this point, the teacher in question was already out of the classroom on a leave of absence.
On 11.8.18, school administrators spent the day interviewing students and employees concerning this matter. Following these interviews, a family member from each student in this classroom was contacted. Parents were informed that the matter was under investigation and that neither school officials nor law enforcement had all the facts.
The Director of White County Schools later called the mother of the child who was the focus of the report and provided as much information and guidance to her as circumstances permitted. He indicated that the matter was under investigation.
In accordance with Tennessee law and Board policy, the Director of Schools then suspended the teacher pending the outcome of the investigation. This suspension was not an assumption of the teacher’s guilt but was rather a recognition of the seriousness of the allegations and the need to place the welfare of our students before all other considerations.
Since that time, school officials have interviewed school employees and have cooperated with law enforcement and DCS in their investigations. The Director has not been in a position to share what he and the administration have learned since the law enforcement investigation is ongoing; the last thing school officials want to do under these circumstances is to compromise a criminal investigation and hamper whatever decisions DCS, the sheriff or district attorney might make.
While law enforcement continues its investigation, the teacher remains suspended from her job. Once the investigation is complete, the Director of Schools will decide what action to take with regard to this teacher.
School board policy requires all school system employees to report suspected brutality, abuse, or neglect against any child. To our knowledge, school system employees have complied with this policy, and we are not aware of any suspected abuse, brutality, or neglect that anyone failed to report in a timely fashion.
Once school officials and law enforcement have completed their investigation, the administration will inform all affected parents of what they have learned to the fullest extent permitted by state and federal law. School officials will also take whatever steps may be necessary to address lessons learned from this incident.
We all take the safety of our students seriously, but likewise, we don’t want to rush to judgment without all the facts. The Board of Education and the administration of White County Schools greatly appreciates the patience and understanding that the people of White County have shown as we work alongside our partners in law enforcement to understand the facts behind these allegations.”
Lisa Blanton Eller (parent)
“Hello, I am Lisa Eller. I am a life-long resident of White County. I have three children, one grandchild. 2 of my children are still students in the White County School System. I am a former employee of the School system, having served as a speech teachers assistant dealing with special needs children in various schools in White County. I am currently an LPN at Life Care Center here in Sparta. I am the mother of Gavin Eller. Gavin is autistic. He is also non-verbal and has little to no communication skills. Gavin is the reason I am here today.
Background about Gavin
This is the 2nd year that Gavin has been at Woodland Park School. He began the special needs program at Woodland Park school when he was three years old with the goal of advancing his ability to communicate and socialize so that he may gain independent skills. Last year he loved school and especially loved the teachers and teachers assistants that were in his class room. This year Gavin started out excited about his new class room and new teacher and assistants. This did not last long. Shortly after Gavin began the school year, Gavin began clinging to only one of the assistants and seemed to have no desire to be around the teacher, Ms. Sally Hoffman. In fact, Gavin would cry when he was around Ms. Hoffman. Of course, being non-verbal, I could not determine what the issue was. I am very active in my participation with Gavin’s educational needs and regularly attend IEP meeting to assure his needs are being met. At no time, until recently, did I have concerns about his actual physical safety. I do now.
On November 8, 2018 I received a call from Marcie Kinnard, the nurse at the school’s central office. The call was to notify me that my child had eaten a piece of pizza off from someone else’s tray. The nurse stated that I might want to take him and get him checked out by a doctor. At that time I was perplexed about why I would receive such a call. Children eat off of other’s trays on a regular basis. There was no indication that my child was exposed to any dangerous diseases or even what I should be concerned about. Least of all , there was absolutely no report that my child may have been abused or neglected or that a report was being made to the Department of Children’s Services.
On November 9, I received a phone call that gave me concern and definitely answered the question as to why I received the phone call about the pizza. I received information at that time that Ms. Hoffman may have abused my child. I further received information that there had previously been reports about Ms. Hoffman’s behavior in the class room towards the children and other staff members. I received information that Ms. Hoffman may be positive for Hepatitis and the concern for Gavin’s medical care was because there was concern that Gavin may have been exposed to hepatitis. And to add to that disturbing information, I was told that Ms. Hoffman had a previous criminal conviction for assault and yet was still hired by our current administration to work with the most vulnerable of our children. Obviously, I was extremely upset and over that weekend, I set out to contact someone, anyone that could tell me what was happening. I received no response from anyone.
On Monday, November 12 I went to Woodland Park School to find the answers only to be told by the principal that he couldn’t talk to me that I would only be able to talk to the superintendent. I was told that there was a report to the Department of Children’s Services concerning Gavin and an incident at school , however no information could be provided. The Superintendent was out and so I did speak with the nurse who had called the week before. At that time, I was told that the pizza my child had eaten was off the tray of the teacher. No one could tell me if the teacher had any health issues. Furthermore, I was told that the incident happened in early October and that the reason I was being told now was because there was an additional incident that was being reported and that it came out about Gavin’s incident. The nurse further stated that if a doctor had called to ask about what tests should be completed on Gavin, then she would have said Hepatitis and HIV. Still no answers as to what has happened to my non-verbal child.
Tuesday and Wednesday were the same. More questions, no answers, no cooperation whatsoever. On Wednesday, I posted notice on my Facebook regarding the school’s duties to report to the parent any allegations of child abuse within 24 hours. Obviously the 24 hour mark was well pas
On Thursday I was called in for a meeting with Dr. Thompson at which time I was informed that Gavin had eaten a piece of pizza off of the teacher’s tray and that the teacher had him throw it up.I question how she had him throw it up, to which he said he did not know. I asked him the details of the incident to which he replied he did not know.
To this date, I am still in the dark about the allegations involving my son. I am not allowed to talk with the ones who witnessed the alleged incident. I receive bits and pieces third and fourth handed. The teachers and aids apparently are not allowed to talk with me.
So here are the issues:
1. Parents should have FULL disclosure when allegations of abuse by a teacher are made. A report that my child ate pizza off of a tray does not provide me information necessary to help my non-verbal child. Details of the allegations are important for a parent to be able to properly deal with the issue and to determine what level of concern one should have.
2. Parents should be allowed to receive the information 1st hand. We should be able to have full and open communication with the people in the class room- not an administrator that wasn’t there.
3. The law requires that parents be provided all reports of abuse from the school. This should include all statements made by all witnesses or all that was interviewed by the school. This still has not been done. The administration claims to have some duty to protect these reports until the investigation is completed by the Department and now by law enforcement. This is not the law. I want the report now. I want to know why the Child protective services came to my house and why there is an investigation regarding my son because of actions of an employee of our school system. I want to know the details of what was alleged and what is now being said.
4. I want cameras in the class rooms of these special needs children so that their welfare is protected. This is done in other counties and should be done in ours as well.
5. I want a one on one instructor to be with my child so his needs can be met and his safety protected. I have turned over the recommendations from his therapist regarding this absolute need and it still is denied. He needs to be able to communicate. I have provided the means for him to communicate but it is going to take one on one instruction for him to be able to learn to use the device and yet this is denied.
6. I am extremely concerned about staff being too afraid to speak out because they may lose their job. Shelly Cole did speak out and lost her job. She is not the only employee that has told me what is going on but he others are too afraid that they will be is the same position as Ms. Cole.
7. I have been informed that this administration has the policy that what happens in the school stays in the school. Parents have an absolute right to know what is going on with their child and the staff should never be told they cannot talk to a parent.
8. I do not want anyone with a criminal history of assault working with my non-verbal child or anyone’s child, especially vulnerable special needs children.”