ATLANTA (CN) - An Atlanta school district failed to intervene after staff and administrators became aware that a teacher was a serial abuser of disabled students, a child's parents claim in court.
Douglas and Lisa Williams sued the Fulton County School District, the allegedly abusive teacher Melanie Pickens, and a long list of school administrators and faculty, in Federal Court.
Among the litany of allegations, the Williamses say Pickens sprayed Lysol on a child and grabbed a disabled boy so hard by the penis he suffered a penile embolism, and the teacher claimed that "the child was falling in the bathroom so she grabbed the child by his penis to stop him from falling."
The Williamses' son has several disabilities, including cerebral palsy and moderate retardation, but they say he was a happy, social child and progressing in school until he was assigned to the classroom of special education teacher Melanie Pickens.
For the next year, they say in their 146-page lawsuit, their son was "violently and inhumanely abused" by Pickens while district administrators and school faculty stood by, failed to intervene and eventually covered up for her.
Among the 29 individual defendants is Sara Biegelson, an assistant principal at Hopewell Middle School.
"Biegelson was in charge of special education and she knew about the abuse of disabled children by Pickens during the 2006-2007 school year, and she did not inform the GaPSC [Georgia Professional Standards Commission], DFACS [the Division of Family and Children's Services], the FCSD police, any other criminal investigative body, or the parents of the abused disabled children, and after the 2006-2007 school year, Biegelson instructed Hopewell employees not to reveal the abuse to anyone, including parents, which caused Alex and other disabled children further harm," according to the complaint.
The focal point of the Williams' allegations is Pickens herself.
From January to May 2002, the Williamses say, Pickens' was employed as a student teacher in the district, and her performance was deemed unsatisfactory in numerous ways. So bad was she in the classroom, the Williamses claim, that "Pickens' college coordinator reported in writing that she would not employ Pickens as a teacher for her own child."
Despite being informed in writing of these deficiencies, the school district hired Pickens to teach disabled children with moderate, severe, or profound mental impairment, the Williamses say.
From the start of her career as a special ed teacher with the school district, the parents claim, "Pickens was very rough with the disabled children at Holcomb Bridge [Middle School], and she yanked the children around, she screamed and yelled at them, she pulled at least one child's ear, she pulled at least one child's hair, and she placed disabled children alone in the bathroom in the dark."
The Williamses claims that when the mother of one of Pickens' students complained, her child was removed from Pickens' class. But the district kept Pickens on, even after it received recommendations that her contract not be renewed, the Williamses say.
They say that for several summers Pickens was assigned to work with disabled students and that in at least one case, she was "very physically rough with a disabled child and harmed the child. Because of Pickens' abuse of the disabled child during the summer, FCSD insisted Pickens take an anger management course, which Pickens did not take."
During another summer session, the Williamses say, "Pickens grabbed a disabled child's penis so hard or otherwise did something to the child's penis to cause the child to suffer damage and harm to the disabled elementary school child's penis and to cause him to suffer a penile embolism, requiring medical care. Pickens admitted she grabbed the child's penis, saying the child was falling in the bathroom so she grabbed the child by his penis to stop him from falling."
The lawsuit adds: "From 2002 to 2007 or during some time between 2002 and 2007, [defendant FCSD special ed coordinator Dorothy] Pettes and all other named defendants had knowledge that Pickens was doing one, some, or all of the following to disabled children who could not themselves report the abuse: screaming at them, pulling ears, pulling hair, placing disabled children in a bathroom restrained and alone and at times with the lights out, being rough with them, yanking them, calling them 'little fu_kers,' calling them 'little sh_ts,' shoving them, strapping them in or otherwise restraining them in a chair and leaving them in a room alone (sometimes in the dark), kicking them, jacking them up, shoving them into lockers, shoving them into walls, pushing them down on hard surfaces, throwing hard objects at them, putting and rubbing her buttocks in their faces, putting and rubbing her breasts in their faces, letting them touch her buttocks while saying you know you like that to the student, depriving them of food, passing gas directly in their faces, making them stand instead of sit until their legs were so weak they could stand no more, spraying Lysol on a child, slamming a disabled child down on a wedge, slamming a disabled child down in his wheel chair, abandoning disabled children restrained to Rifton chairs while they spread feces on themselves, telling disabled children their mother did not love them or was on crack or was jacked up, intentionally frightening and startling the children, slamming them face first into metal lockers and cement walls, and more."
Ultimately, the parents say, their son "and the other students feared Pickens so much ... all the children cowered when Pickens came at them upset or angry."
The Williamses say they filed a formal complaint against Pickens and the district, and that during the subsequent due process hearing the administrative law judge ordered the district to turn over any and all documents related to Pickens and allegations that she abused disabled children in her care.
"Yet FCSD did not produce even one document regarding any abuse or alleged abuse by Pickens," the Williamses say.
They add: "FCSD has taken intentional actions to destroy, delete, and not produce documents involving Pickens' abuse of disabled children while Pickens was employed by FCSD, including when she taught at Holcomb Bridge, Woodland Elementary School, and Hopewell."
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, investigators hired by Fulton County and the state's Professional Standards Commission, which oversees teacher conduct, concluded that abuse did indeed occur in Pickens' classroom, and her teaching license was revoked in 2008.
Nine months later, a grand jury indicted Pickens on 11 counts of cruelty to children and false imprisonment. In February 2012, an administrative law judge ruled that the Williams' son had been denied a "free and appropriate education" as a result of the abuse. As a result, the judge said, Williams was entitled to a private education at the district's expense for the next five years.
But the case took another turn on Tuesday, when a Fulton County judge hearing the criminal case granted Pickens immunity on the grounds that the law shields teachers from abuse claims if their actions took place while they were disciplining students.
The Fulton County District Attorney told the Atlanta Journal Constitution he plans to appeal.
The Williamses seek punitive damages of more than $100 million for violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.
They are represented by Chris Vance.