A teacher and two aides at a Florida school for the disabled were arrested for allegedly punishing autistic children by locking them in a dark bathroom or blowing a loud whistle in their ear as punishment, authorities said.
Another aide was so disturbed by the repeated abuse at the Silver Sands School in Fort Walton Beach that she reported it to a school police officer, which sparked an investigation, the Okaloosa Sheriff’s office said.
The students were between the ages of 8 and 10.
Sheriff Larry Ashley said that while police learned of the abuse in September, “it had been going on for some time” and investigators are looking for other victims.
He said teacher Margaret Wolthers and aides Diana LaCroix and Carolyn Madison could have called the principal, the school resource officer or the parents when kids were difficult to handle.
Instead, on at least three occasions, they put a child alone in the bathroom, even though state law explicitly outlaws seclusion. One of the educators is the wife of a sheriff’s deputy.
“Classroom aides who witnessed the incidents say the victims would scream and cry when placed in the bathroom, and that one was contained for up to 90 minutes,” Ashley said.
One of the children was extremely sensitive to sound and wore headphones to protect him from loud noises. To discipline him the teacher and aides would “intentionally and maliciously” blow a whistle directly in his ear while holding his arms down. On other occasions, they allegedly used the whistle to threaten him into compliance.
School superintendent Marcus Chambers said the staffers, all of whom have worked at the school for years, were placed on administrative duty during the investigation. Now that they have been charged, they are suspended with pay pending the outcome of the criminal case.
Chambers said district is stepping up training on how to handle children who are acting out and mandatory reporting of abuse. He said staffers previously received training but the arrests made clear that “we need to do even better.”