ATLANTA, Georgia (WXIA) – From a heavy handed slap that knocks the special needs student out of his seat, to a series of hits on the head for another child on the floor. In just four days Ms. “J” says she recorded more abuse than she could bear in her Atlanta classroom.
“I haven’t been the same. I haven’t been able to return to work,” said the teacher.
Ms. “J” asked not to be identified, but her video is revealing. She says she installed a hidden camera in her classroom at Harper Archer Middle School after the principal and district refused to investigate her concerns regarding how two employees were treating the children in their care.
Alger Coleman, the behavior specialist, and Keisha Smith, a para pro. She says they were lazy, watching TV and listening to music instead of helping the children and that as the year went on they became more physically and verbally abusive. But when she would talk with the principal about her concerns, no one believed her. “J” says she tried three times, even reaching out to someone on the district level for help.
“They would blatantly turn it around and lie and say no we don’t know what she’s talking about,” said “J.”
It was a he-said, she-said situation since the children are non-verbal. They can’t speak or write to tell anyone what’s happening to them. But its hard to argue with the video. In it, attorney Terance Madden says you can see Coleman hit one of the students, then put him in a wrestling choke hold.
“If you look down at his feet, you can see his feet lift off the ground,” said Madden.
Later, when the student spills some water, Coleman hits him again.
“Bam! Clearly slaps him totally out of the chair,” Madden added, watching the video.
The student gets back in his chair only to be hit two more times. Madden says when the district refused to act, he advised the teacher to take it to police. They charged Coleman with battery and child cruelty. According to the police report, they had to force their way into his house to make the arrest.
11Alive spoke with Sherry Cheely, the mother of another boy seen abused in the videos.
“It was outrageous, heartbreaking,” she said.
She says Keisha Smith is her son’s para pro in the same classroom. Smith has not been charged by police, however APS has reassigned her pending a disciplinary hearing. Cheeley says even now, the district has never contacted her about the problem. She found out about it when DFCS called to follow up on Ms. “J’s” complaint.
“It’s really hard because I feel like I can’t trust no one. I feel like Atlanta public schools failed me,” said Cheely.
APS says it takes the safety of its students seriously, but won’t comment on its investigation. 11Alive News asked repeatedly if any additional oversight had been added to the classroom or if there had been any policy changes, but the district has refused to comment.
Ms. J says oversight is something APS desperately needs along with better training for the staff. She would also like to see legislative changes so that districts can be held accountable for negligent behavior. Right now schools are protected by sovereign immunity.