Recording hints at mistreatment of autistic boy
BENNINGTON -- The family of an 8-year-old autistic boy is shocked and angry after learning from a secret audio recording the boy was regularly secluded in a room at school, told to clean his urine off the floor, and referred to as a "dumbass kid with autism" by a paraprofessional.
Those are a few of the most alarming incidents overheard by the child's aunt, Jean Pinsonneault, who attached the voice recorder to Nathan Reilly's backpack on Feb. 13 after consistently hearing horror stories of Nathan's behavior at school.
"Nathan wears two hats. From eight to three 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," said Nathan's mother Joan Reilly, who said she has not listened to the recording herself but has been told of its contents by Pinsonneault.
After Reilly said she unsuccessfully tried to work with school administrators earlier this school year to find a solution, Pinsonneault -- who considers herself like another parent to the third grader -- said they viewed recording the interactions at Bennington Elementary as a last resort needed to learn what was triggering his behavior.
"I placed a voice recorder on Nathan because I needed to know. I needed to know exactly what was happening. ... I found out a lot of disturbing things," Pinsonneault said.
A copy of the recording, which is more than nine hours in length, was given to the Banner Wednesday.
Throughout most of the recording Nathan, who his mother describes as having "high functioning autism," can be heard with two paraeducators in a setting away from other students. Many times throughout the day Nathan is left alone in the room as his paraprofessionals, who Reilly and Pinsonneault identified as Clayton Buck and Laurie Connell, talk outside the room.
When left alone, Nathan's anger often escalates and he responds by yelling and banging on the door. The recording device, which Pinsonneault said was attached to Nathan's backpack and positioned next to the door of the small room he was in, picked up the interactions inside the room as well as conversations between the two paraprofessionals standing outside the door. At one point while Nathan is alone in the room he tells the paraprofessionals, "I can hear you through the door."
During one instance when Nathan is secluded in the room he tells the paraprofessionals he wants lunch. The recording picks up audio of Connell telling Buck from outside the room, "I already know, at least 10 days that kid can go without food before it actually starts affecting his body."
"Yeah," Buck responds.
"Three days without fluids," Connell continues. "I don't think three hours is going to do it."
Reilly said she recognizes the voices in the recording as Buck and Connell. The audio also captures both of their first names being used and a report sent home regarding Nathan's behavior on Feb. 13 indicates Buck and Connell worked with him that day, Reilly said.
At another part in the recording Buck can be heard responding to a woman who suggests Nathan may be smarter than he "pretends" to be.
"I think he's a little dumbass with autism and he doesn't have a clue about anything in the world (and he can't) make connections with anything," Buck responds. Audio is unclear what Buck says next; however seconds after that he appears to say Nathan "does not have autism."
At another point it appears Nathan is secluded inside the room after urinating on the floor. Buck explains to a woman the reason Nathan pees on the floor is because he gets to do nothing while adults clean it up. However, both Buck and Connell tell Nathan to clean the mess up.
It is unclear from the recording who did clean up the urine, however Connell can be heard telling Nathan to get paper towels to wipe up a mess and later says "here's another one" and "keep going." Buck later tells Connell not to touch the paper towel after it was used.
At another point in the day both Buck and Connell tell Nathan they will not clean up his drool. "We're not going to clean up your drool today. When you think you can be safe we'll talk again," Buck said before shutting the door, apparently leaving Nathan alone in the room.
At another point in the audio Buck tells Nathan he will call the police on him. It is unclear in the audio the reason the police would be called.
Reilly said her son has not been back to Bennington Elementary since Feb. 13.
Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union officials received a copy of the recording Wednesday evening. On Thursday, Superintendent Catherine McClure said she is unable to comment on the contents in the recording because it is a personnel matter. McClure said she had only listened to pieces of the audio, however she said it is a priority to listen to it in its entirety.
"I'm obligated to listen to the entire thing in order that I can recognize any investigative action that I must take ... if I'm considering investigative action because of a concern I really need to do that for our students, for our parents, for our entire community, and for our faculty and staff," McClure said. "I need to do that with urgency, thoroughness and fairness."
McClure would not confirm the voices in the recording. When asked whether Buck and Connell are still employed by the supervisory union she confirmed they are. McClure would not say whether either has been placed on administrative leave.
The superintendent said based on the pieces of the audio she has heard she is considering a future investigation.
"Certainly I'm considering what I've heard," she said, "I'm considering the investigative actions I would be required to fill."
Reilly and Pinsonneault have voiced their frustrations regarding how the school and special education program has handled Nathan, at school board meetings in recent months. In addition to Nathan's behavior digressing, Reilly said their frustration is from Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union administration saying Nathan's needs cannot be met at the local public schools. Reilly said Special Education Director Kathy Buck, who is the mother of Clayton Buck, wants Nathan to attend the New England Center for Children, a residential program for autistic children based in Southborough, Mass. McClure said she could not comment on the nature of any conversations between Reilly and herself or other school officials.
Reilly has a daughter placed at NECC, however she is adamant it is not the best environment for her son.
"I have a daughter that is severely autistic. She needed to be at the New England Center ... Nathan is on the other end of the spectrum," she said.
"With Nathan he's very verbal. He's sociable. He's easygoing and he can tell you what he likes and dislikes," she said. "He's very smart. He's very bright."
Reilly is among a list of parents of autistic children in Bennington who have raised concerns at school board meetings in recent months. Like other parents, Reilly believes the problem with the SVSU autism program stems from having untrained staff working with the children. "If Nathan had the proper supports here he wouldn't have to go anywhere else," she said.
SVSU has brought in autism consultants for training and support of the local autism program, however Pinsonneault said that training as well as students' individualized educational programs (IEPs) are not being followed, as evidenced in the recording. "They are not following any kind of behavioral plan," she said.
Pinsonneault brought the recording to the Bennington Police Department, however after reviewing it police determined there was no evidence a crime was committed. Chief Paul Doucette said the audio has been forwarded to the Department of Children and Families in Montpelier.
Pinsonneault said she hopes releasing the audio to the media will bring attention to the deficiencies in the program and leads to improvements.
If the SVSU were to hire professionals trained in autism to appropriately work with and teach them then Reilly said she hopes Nathan may be transitioned into Monument Elementary, due to her experience at Bennington Elementary.
"The biggest problem here with this school district is we need experienced people with the training to work with these kids with autism," she said.
Reilly is also calling for the dismissal of Buck and Connell.
"I'm hoping they lose their jobs. If they're doing this to Nathan they're doing this to other children," she said.
Reilly defends secretly using the recording device because, she said, it was necessary to get an understanding of what she suspects Nathan went through every day at school.
"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 only specific thing Reilly knew her son did not like about school was being secluded in a small room away from his peers -- an environment he has been restricted to this school year.
In the recording at both the beginning of the day as Nathan is dropped off and when Nathan is picked up, he can be heard complaining about being secluded in the room.
Reilly has fought for her son not to spend the entire school day away from his peers; however, she said, police were called to escort her from the building when school officials believed she crossed the line by refusing to leave without ensuring Nathan had the opportunity to be with his peers. She was later served a no trespass order on the Bennington Elementary property, she said.
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