Friday March 8, 2013

Last month, the aunt of 8-year-old autistic student at Bennington Elementary resorted to spy tactics to find out why her nephew complained of mistreatment at school.

A microphone she hid on the third-grade boy's backpack revealed, after recording the child's entire school day, that staff members charged with teaching the boy appeared to be bullying him.

Per the more than nine-hour audio recording, which was provided by his family to a Banner reporter, young Nathan Reilly was regularly secluded in a room at the school, told to clean his urine off the floor, mocked for drooling, and referred to as a "dumbass kid with autism" by a paraprofessional.

Nathan's mother, Joan Reilly, told The Banner that school officials related shocking tales of his behavior at school. "Nathan wears two hats. From 8 to 3 he's very aggressive, he pees on the floor, he throws furniture -- there's all kinds of stuff that goes on at school. But at home, it's not going on."

Nathan, according to Joan Reilly, has "high functioning autism" -- defined as a person diagnosed with autistic disorder (a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, communication problems, and unusual, repetitive or severly limited activities and interests, according to the International Center for Autism Research and Education) who has a normal or above-average IQ.


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"Because he has autism all he would say is, ‘They're being mean to me, they're being mean to me,' but when I asked how he wouldn't tell me," she said.

The secret recording was a last resort by Nathan's family to find out what was happening at school to trigger the behavior described by school officials. Reilly said she attempted to work with administrators earlier in the year, but was unsuccessful.

Use of a recording device to "spy" on a special needs child's teachers has been employed elsewhere .In 2011, the Today show reported on a situation involving a 14-year-old special needs student in Ohio who complained to her father that she was being bullied at school by her teachers.

When the girl's father confronted school administrators, he was told that his daughter was lying about being harassed and bullied. So, he placed with a hidden tape recorder under her clothes. For the next four days, she recorded a series of abusive and remarks from a teacher and a teacher's aide at her school. The tapes revealed the staff members saying disturbing things to the student, Cheyanne, whose last name was withheld by the Today Show, in class.

"Cheyanne, are you kidding me? Are you that damn dumb? You are that dumb?'' then-aide Kelly Chaffins can be heard saying. "Oh my God. You are such a liar. You told me you don't know. It's no wonder you don't have friends. No wonder nobody likes you because you lie, cheat.''

The girl's teacher, Christie Wilt, can be heard on the recordings calling her "lazy" and "dumb."

After the tapes were brought to school administrators' attention, the aide was asked to resign, and the teacher was required to undergo anti-bullying training.

The family filed a civil lawsuit against the school district and were awarded $300,000 in damages.

At Bennington Elementary, paraprofessional Laurie Connell, whose voice was identified by Nathan's mom, Joan Reilly, the in the recording, has been placed on administrative leave while the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Unit conducts an investigation. The other paraprofessional, Clayton Buck, a substitute, will not be working during the course of the investigation, school officials said.

SVSU Superintendent Catherine McClure said the safety of children is the school's top concern. She said at a school board meeting Wednesday that the results of the investigation will be reported.

Joan Reilly said her son has not returned to Bennington Elementary since Feb. 13. She hopes Nathan may be transitioned into another public school. Reilly is also calling for the dismissal of the paraprofessionals who were allegedly caught on tape mistreating her boy.

Other parents of autistic children in Bennington School District have also raised concerns.

Laurie Mulhern, a member of the Bennington Special Education Parent Advisory Council asked school officials at this week's school board meeting to reach out to SEPAC to get their input on special needs programs, policies and procedures.

"We have talked to state representatives, support groups. We have felt like we have done everything we can. We can't change this alone, we need each and every one of you to reach out to these children. They were born this way. They don't deserve to be treated with any kind of disrespect."

We urge the SVSU to do a thorough investigation into the teaching practices and possible mistreatment revealed by Nathan Reilly's hidden microphone.

The special needs children in the district deserve better.

They deserve to be treated fairly, and with respect.

~Michelle Karas