Abuse of Fulton students with special needs continues to shock

An administrative court decision represents quite a victory for a Fulton family and quite a condemnation of Fulton County schools.  The details of this saga continue to shock –  a middle school teacher mistreated and abused a student with cerebral palsy.

But witnesses  also say Hopewell Middle School special education teacher Melanie Pickens also punished students, including Alex Williams, by restraining them in a chair and leaving them in the dark.

Investigators hired by Fulton schools and from the state’s Professional Standards Commission confirmed the abuse, saying that Pickens screamed at students, hit, kicked and cursed at them, sprayed them with disinfectant and passed gas in their faces.

“Her inappropriate behavior and treatment ran the gamut from being too rough with special education students to sheer meanness,” an investigator wrote in his report to Fulton Schools.

Chris Vance, a lawyer for the families, said the school system failed to protect Pickens’ students. Vance said teachers and their assistants, principals, a custodian, special-education officials and bus drivers knew that Pickens harmed her students during four years she worked in the system.

In an earlier AJC story, Vance asked, “How could so many people know and not care?”

The Williams had asked the courts to order Fulton to pay for schooling for their son.

According to the AJC:

Judge Kimberly Schroer said Alex Williams, now 19, is entitled to a private education at the district’s expense for the next five years. That education will include training, therapy and a plan with goals so he can learn to become more independent.

Schroer said that Fulton Schools “violated” the student’s educational rights, and Williams’ parents “do not want him to be placed in any other traditional school setting that might remind him of the past abuse.” The ruling also compels the district to reimburse Doug and Lisa Williams for private services they used to help their son after he left school.

“This is awesome,” Lisa Williams said late Wednesday. “I had no sense of how she was going to rule. Everything that we have dealt with, I didn’t know if anybody was ever going to do the right thing.”

Fulton Schools officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The family and their lawyer have said Alex Williams was hit, kicked and humiliated by Hopewell Middle special education teacher Melanie Pickens.  The principal at the time, Frances Boyd, now retired, failed to investigate the reports of abuse.

Chris Vance, attorney for the Williamses, said the family will seek $10 million in a federal lawsuit.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

59 comments Add your comment

the prof

February 1st, 2012
10:27 pm

I am just speechless….

3schoolkids

February 1st, 2012
10:32 pm

It is inexcusable that it took so long for this teacher to be fired and her certification revoked. As a parent of a special needs child I know how difficult it is to leave your child with someone and the fear that they will be mistreated and unable to communicate it to you. To have it actually happen is unthinkable. I feel for the family and hope that the judgement will give them some peace, bless them.

WAR

February 1st, 2012
10:40 pm

3schoolkids

as a parent of a special needs child i know your pain. i pray each night that nothing happens. i dread what i would do. God bless the meek for they will inherit the earth.

HS Public Teacher

February 1st, 2012
10:52 pm

These teachers were wrong and should pay the price.

The administrators were wrong. They allowed it to go on too long without stopping it. They should also pay the price.

My heart goes out to these children and their parents.

Like I said before...

February 2nd, 2012
12:29 am

it’s the ultimate betrayal of trust. I am praying for the children and the parents.

Fred in DeKalb

February 2nd, 2012
6:40 am

I agree with the earlier comments, this was a reprehensible act against children. A price should be paid by this teacher. While I support due process, it is a shame this took so long to resolve.

At the same time, I also hope that when children are in the wrong for acts against teachers (many which go unreported), we are as diligent in talking about those. This could be expanded to adminstrators and parents acting out against teachers also. The learning environment needs to be one free of created conflicts, mistreatment and violence.

catlady

February 2nd, 2012
6:48 am

What a sad, sad story. Why DID it take so long?

Dr. John Trotter

February 2nd, 2012
6:59 am

This abuse is shocking and so numbing. Why would anyone go into education if he or she doesn’t love children? To abuse the helpless and disabled is unconscionable. The vast, vast majority of educators go into teaching because they love children and love the interaction with children. Then, a story like this comes along. Wow. I am glad the judge socked it to the school system.

The General

February 2nd, 2012
7:22 am

If I were the parents, I would pursue action directly against the teacher and principal as well. Criminal, civil, whatever it takes to nail their sorry asses and hold them PERSONALLY accountable for their actions, not just the school system as a whole.

Maureen Downey

February 2nd, 2012
7:42 am

@The General. If you read the first link, there are parents suing the individuals directly.
Maureen

nelson

February 2nd, 2012
7:47 am

Yesterday it was the teacher that put cockroaches on the students and today this atrocious teacher conduct. You are painting the entire teaching profession with the same brush. For every poor teacher there are a 100 good ones. I know a young student’s mother that goes to the school, volunteers and knows what is “shaking”. If a parent wants to find out what is happening, go and find out, rather than sitting back and being “aghast” at every thing going wrong.

gamom

February 2nd, 2012
8:52 am

Is there a criminal investigation? There should be

Miss Management

February 2nd, 2012
8:55 am

Yes, Nelson, we know that there are 100 (or at least some number of) good teachers for every bad one. Just like there are 100 good citizens or more for every criminal and some number of good priests, athletic directors, youth leaders, babysitters, etc for every bad one. Does that mean crimes should go unreported or that we should not address the criminal issues in this country? Are you saying that it’s the parents own fault because they weren’t in the school every day checking out what’s “shaking”? Sorry, but most of us will continue to be “aghast” when things of this nature occur. For a teacher, your thinking is rather dull. OOOPS, didn’t mean to make it sound like all teachers are dull!

carlosgvv

February 2nd, 2012
9:04 am

Is Melani Pickens black? If so, look for her to charge those prosecuting her with racism and Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton to be outside the courtroom stirring up as much trouble as possible. And, whatever happened to all those black teachers caught in the cheating scandal? Amazing how that story has just gone away. Odds are they are back on the job as though nothing happened.

Maureen Downey

February 2nd, 2012
9:17 am

@carlos, No idea what race the teacher is. However, the educators in the APS cheating scandal are going through due process. The story hasn’t gone away. These hearings will and should take time. People’s careers are on the line, and they are entitled to a fair, legal process.
There is no racial element to cheating. There is the basic reality that if you hold people to a single accountability measurement and impose high stakes, some of them are going to figure out a way to cheat.
Consider the news this week that a top US college has been inflating its students’ SAT scores to get a better US News & World Report ranking. Consider the cheating scandal in the wealthy NY community where kids were paying classmates more than $1,000 to take the SAT for them.

Maureen

Inman Park Boy

February 2nd, 2012
9:23 am

Crime shouild always shock us, especially crimes against children! The fact is that crimes against children are increasing in our modern, stainless steel, bright, technology driven schools. It would take a psychologist or sociologist to explain that problem. What we need to do as educators is to be even more careful of who is hired in our schools. At the school where I work every single person who works with or interacts with a child in any way, including parent volunteers, must undergo a thorough backgrouind check and sit through a half-day course on recognizing and reporting child abuse of any kind, including emotional abuse. As a school administrator this is a constant worry for me, as people who are prone to abuse children look just like you and me, they are friendly and smiling but inside they are totten but sometimes they get hired anyway. What I can say to teachers, administrators and parents is to be vigilant, LISTEN to your children when they tell you that somnething is wrong, that that a teacher or another adult has done somnething to them. Don’t scoff or pooh-pooh their complaints. If we all work together maybe we can minimize this activity. I am afraid that, human behavior being what it is, we will never eliminate it completely.

gamom

February 2nd, 2012
9:30 am

Why hasn’t there been a criminal investigation…Is there a way to check on this?

carlosgvv

February 2nd, 2012
9:30 am

Maureen – 9:17

I hope you’re right. However, as a responsible journalist, I hope you’ll stay on top of these stories and not let them creep back into the woodwork for social and political reasons.

gamom

February 2nd, 2012
9:38 am

I will say this again at t he risk of repeating myself and ridicule. Corporal Punishment is still legal in Georgia Schools, the law is vague and confusing and does not clearly define what is and is not abuse in the law, plus if a teacher claims ‘discipline’, the law says they are criminally and civilly immune if they acted in ‘good faith’…We’ve got a problem I would say. A true gap in our child protection laws, a loophole that gives tremendous latitude to a population of people (educators), which gives them the opportunity to abuse the law and abuse our children.

APS Parent

February 2nd, 2012
9:55 am

The articles on the abuse the students are taking across the board in education is starting to paint such a dismal picture of teachers and administrators. From the racist acts in Gwinnett, cheating in Atlanta, allowing a child to be raped, and general abuse of students both special needs and others is becoming too much. I know that the PSC does background checks but it is really the parents being visible and letting their child know that no matter what – they come first. Teach your child not to be afraid to tell you. Pay attention to what is being said. Investigate on your own. Then take action. Start at the top or with the police. There are some excellent teachers who want to ensure that every child receives a quality education. But, unfortunately, they are being hog tied by a poilitcal system that is self centered. And, then there are the scums that are in education to abuse the children and the system.

3schoolkids

February 2nd, 2012
10:16 am

I have been volunteering in my kids schools for 15+ years and I’ve seen MANY excellent educators and a few who weren’t so great. Believe me when I tell you you can’t always spot a bad apple, especially when that bad apple has a lot of support from other educators. Unfortunately there are not a lot of opportunities for volunteering in the classroom at the middle school level and if a child is not able to communicate it would be very hard for a parent to know this was happening. It’s too bad our legislators aren’t acting to correct the problems in our public school system.

Sandy Springs Parent

February 2nd, 2012
10:34 am

Several of the Special Ed teachers in Fulton County are Coaches in Fulton County. The truth is they could never make it as regular class room teachers, so they get special Ed certifications. Remember just a few years ago the State and most counties were begging for any body with Special Ed. Certifications.

At Riverwood, that has been plaqued by scandal of financial misconduct by the principal and Athletic Director this year since the new Supt. started doing an Audit. There have also been complaints about abusive cheerleading coaches and abusive soft ball coaches, abusive girls basketball coaches and and abusive AD. What seems to be the common denominator they are all Special Ed teachers.

Even before the Principal Eddie Echols was exposed for finacial mismanagement of a school Visa Card and fired by Avossa. Varsity Cheerleading parents were meeting last August and September about the abusive Varsity Cheerleading Coach, a special Ed teacher. What amazed us was the AD, her buddy a fellow Special Ed. teacher condoned the abuse, and wrote back tough crap abusive e-mails ( which several of us forwarded to Eileen Dowd and an WSB reporter). The Principal then was covering for these abusers. When the audit revealed the Pricipal finacial mismanagement, a few of us parents, quickly figured out that the AD and abusive couches were in on the thefts. After the WSB reporter showed us the Audit, it was clear, why this was allowed. Who has what on someone else. At least a couple of us sent letters to Avasso pointing out the gate receipt scheme, someone else pointed out the AD taking home the cash box from snack bar. So then Avasso got the AD to resign.

My daughter and several other girls on the Cheerleading team suffered all sorts of serious injuries that the team doctor and team trainer classified as severe overtraining injuries only seen in elite atheletes. The doctor said these were clearly the result of improper coaching and training. My daughter just completed 5 1/2 months of physical therapy rehab yesterday, from injuries received in August. This does not include the emotional abuse. When the Fulton county internal abuse investigator finally spoke to me about my abuse complaint about the AD, the coach and 19 year old community coach, he said that since the AD had resigned due to finacial improprities they would not interview him about the abuse or consider any of the e-mails provided by parents sent by him. Since he resigned for personal reasons, prior to being fired he retains his teaching certificate. They had also promoted the Coach to a lower SES school in Special Ed lead teacher position by this time. The interviewer kept telling me, they already replaced the coaches, why are you pursuing this. I said because if she has the guts to treat normal students like this, what does she do to her special ed students. ( The year before she spent her time studying at work for that Leadership Certificate). They only interviewed my daughter and the teacher. Never interviewed the other cheerleaders we gave names for. Then the Fulton investigator concluded not enough evidence to substantiate the abuse charges and the teacher was no longer at the school. No she was “Promoted”.

Looks like I will be contacting the above referenced attorney. I have been fighting Fulton to clear up my daughters attendance record they tried to give her unexcused absences for all the Physical Therapy appointments and Doctors Appointments she had to attend. She even had notes.

Leslie Lipson

February 2nd, 2012
10:42 am

These constant and recent reminders of abuse in the guise of education in our schools raises questions about WHAT SHOULD school do when abuse occurs? See this comprensive report, completed by the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate on what they should do and what LOOPHOLES still exist:

http://bit.ly/fe2BwP

3schoolkids

February 2nd, 2012
10:47 am

I can’t speak for Riverwood or any other school I’m not familiar with, but I do know several coaches who are excellent special ed teachers. It is not easy to get the special ed certificate and I don’t believe that necessarily plays into the quality of teacher(s), definitely the quality of the administration plays into the teachers, both special ed and general ed that are working at a school.

MiltonMan

February 2nd, 2012
10:59 am

What do you expect??? Teachers covering up for teachers. All involved should be in jail rotting away.

V for Vendetta

February 2nd, 2012
11:00 am

Unfortunately for those of us in the profession, the sensational stories of horrible abuse and/or dishonesty are the ones that draw national attention–not the stories of success and triumph. For every one of those “feel good” stories, there are dozens of others that paint a bleak picture indeed. Just look at this blog. The negative stories generate hundreds of comments while the positive ones barely crack fifty. That’s human nature.

One can only hope that the people responsible for this are punished soundly and accordingly. This is why we DON’T need a union in this state. Otherwise, people would be trying to shield her from facing up to what she did.

Oh, and APS Parent, your comment ” From the racist acts in Gwinnett . . .” made me laugh. I have heard from some people that the Norcross incident was not nearly as bad as it was portrayed. A similar incident at Camp Creek, where I know some people, was a pathetic attempt at media fishing and race baiting.

williebkind

February 2nd, 2012
11:05 am

I am shocked that parents of a special needs child requires the state to educate and take care of them. I know this is a progressive liberal agenda.

V for Vendetta

February 2nd, 2012
11:08 am

Am I the only one who thinks Sandy Springs Parent sounds like a typical cheerleading mom?

Let me sum up what probably happened: the coaches expected her to train hard, and she couldn’t take it. They were sometimes mean, and she couldn’t take it. She had to rehab injuries, which is common in many high school athletes, and she couldn’t take it.

I can’t speak to the fraud, but it sounds to me like your daughter had a hard time measuring up to the expectations of a high school athlete.

And you think this is “abusive”? Is it somehow on par with the story Maureen posted? This is why we (teachers) have such a hard time taking some parents seriously. The original story is about REAL abuse, and you post a long diatribe complaining about your daughter who couldn’t hack it on the cheerleading squad.

And you want to contact a lawyer?

Please.

MiltonMan

February 2nd, 2012
11:09 am

Rumor was going around that Francis was also checking to make sure girls wearing skirts to school wear also wearing “appropriate” under clothing.

Thanks Fulton County for putting these scum bags in charge of our children.

bob

February 2nd, 2012
11:18 am

The problen with big city schools is that they are looked at as jobs programs, not teaching facilities. A recent repot showed DeKalb had 300 more admin positions than needed.

MiltonMan

February 2nd, 2012
11:20 am

V – typical teacher defending the actions of fellow teachers.

V, do you truly believe that abuse is only physical in nature??? We had to deal with a teacher who would tell the kids to “shut up” all the time. This same jerk mentioned to my son that he would amount to basically nothing (he is currently in dental school at MCOG). I spoke to the principal of the school (the coward teacher would not respond to my emails about a face-to-face meeting). In good ole’ cover up fashion the teacher was “demoted” to a lower grade level at the end of the school year & my son was “allowed” to transfer to a different class.

If so, please tell me where you teach. I will make sure that I warn parents/kids ahead of time.

Michael Moore

February 2nd, 2012
11:27 am

I take it it’s been a while since anything good happened in a classroom. The negative media narratives have a tremendous influence in shaping public perception. Perhaps we are hard wired to hear sicker and sicker behavior and tend to ignore the positive…I don’t know.

Just a mom

February 2nd, 2012
12:07 pm

No, Melanie Pickens is not African American. She is white. So, we don’t have to worry about Al Sharpton showing up for this one. Second, yes, a criminal investigation is under way. Third, why wouldn’t the state be required to educate special needs kids…they are required to educate all other children. These families pay taxes too. Fourth, Fulton County Schools tried and tried and tried to keep this one under the rug. The Fulton County Schools police did their own investigation and reported that only 1 incident of abuse took place. They called it the “May 17th Incident” I believe. Alpharetta / Milton police didn’t want to get involved, they said it is Fulton County Schools jurisdiction. No lawyer, until Chris Vance, wanted to take on Fulton County Schools. It’s like trying to bring the mafia to court…lots of people go down on the way.
Don’t worry, it’s not over by a long shot. But at least now we know that Fulton County Schools has to handle some of the blame for allowing the cover-ups, firings, humiliation to go on in order to keep this hush. Now, Pickens and Boyd will have to personally answer to these parents and students!

irisheyes

February 2nd, 2012
12:23 pm

V said, “One can only hope that the people responsible for this are punished soundly and accordingly. This is why we DON’T need a union in this state. Otherwise, people would be trying to shield her from facing up to what she did.”

@Milton Man, your reading comprehension skills need a brush up.

V for Vendetta

February 2nd, 2012
12:40 pm

haha, thanks, irisheyes. :-)

V for Vendetta

February 2nd, 2012
12:41 pm

Just a mom,

What they might have been referring to is the enormous proportional difference between what is spent on special ed per child versus what is spent on regular ed. That’s neither here nor there; I’m just throwing it out there.

Old Physics Teacher

February 2nd, 2012
12:45 pm

This is sad on so many levels:
1) The poor kid. There but for the grace of God…
2) Who hired the criminal?
3) Who has allowed this criminal to CONTINUE to work in a school?
4) What OTHER administrator, other than the principal, KNEW this was going on… and there had to be plenty of them
5) This could not have gone on without collusion of fellow Special Ed teachers – the ENTIRE Special Ed Department is also guilty… unless… they complained to their administrators and the administrators did nothing.
And to add insult to injury…
6) The taxpayers of the county are now going to have to “pony up” for additional money to pay for this kid to go to a private school… and all they did was pay taxes like good citizens.

No winners here.

MiltonMan

February 2nd, 2012
1:03 pm

IrishEyes = next time you call me out please, at a bare minumum, understand to which post I am referencing.

V posted:

“The original story is about REAL abuse.”

By calling me out & quoting the thread that I was not even talking about makes you look like a total fool.

GM of IST @ CCDOE in GMU

February 2nd, 2012
1:09 pm

I had great sympathy for the Williams family until I read that last sentence;

‘Chris Vance, attorney for the Williamses, said the family will seek $10 million in a federal lawsuit.’

You just knew that the lawyers would smell green and come scurrying over. What good is punishing the rest of the kids (not to mention the taxpayers) in the school system going to do? Sue the teacher responsible, sue the administrators who looked the other way. But that’s not where the money is, is it?

So Fulton County residents, bend over and relax.

MiltonMan

February 2nd, 2012
1:37 pm

Who do you think paid the white librarians when they sued (and won) Fulton County for reverse discrimination?

The taxpayers. Thanks yet again Fulton County morons.

Good Mom

February 2nd, 2012
1:44 pm

Video cameras in the classroom, turned on all the time, with parents watching via the web.

We cannot allow another teacher to abuse our kids. How could any human being be so cruel? How could any adult know and not complain? I am sickened, disgusted, appalled and heartbroken.

To Catlady from Good Mom

February 2nd, 2012
1:52 pm

Catlday you ask “What a sad, sad story. Why DID it take so long?”

You are the reason it took so long. You denied and denied the pervert who fed semen to the kids was guilty, even after seeing irrefutable proof but when a child with a hand print on his face said her mother slapped her, you immediately believed. You have a double-standard, catlady, and you protect “your own” at all costs.

It is YOU and people JUST LIKE YOU, that is the reason this teacher was able to abuse and continue to abuse children even after her abuse was well known.

Prof

February 2nd, 2012
2:28 pm

I’d like to repeat what I posted at 1:24 pm today on the earlier blog about the teacher who is accused of abusing his students, to which GM here refers. GM was among the most vehement of the posters attacking catlady.

“[Posters] also trashed catlady for reminding all that this teacher has only been accused, not proved to be guilty. Her reminder that IF this person is found guilty, THEN he deserves to be punished was taken as a sign that she supported teachers no matter what they do. The ensuing barrage of hate-filled posts directed specifically at her seemed like lynch law working to me.”

I see the lynch law is still continuing.

gamom

February 2nd, 2012
2:36 pm

another news report coming across the wire….teacher accused of putting hotsauce on crayons to kids wouldn’t eat the crayons…Reportedly a sp. ed teacher of children with autism. Boggles the MIND!

Archie@Arkham Asylum

February 2nd, 2012
4:34 pm

Last I heard, Special Education positions are still hard to fill, especially for students with severe and profound multiple disabilities. As a person who has done it, I can attest there are intrinsic rewards, especially if you can help make a student even a little less dependent on others and able to participate in society, albeit in a limited way. The students can be exasperating, sometimes! The paperwork load has gotten extremely heavy in recent years. Even worse, is that the focus seems to have changed from rehabilitation to an inclusion social experiment that doesn’t benefit either the special ed students or their regular classmates but it “looks good on paper.” I would say now more than ever, anyone who goes into special education better have heart!

Ssmgrl

February 2nd, 2012
5:12 pm

As with any profession, there are good ones and bad ones. Thank goodness most teachers are good. To all administrative educators out there, if you hear the rumors and complaints, check it out. They are probably true to some degree. If the parents at a school are all aware of problems with a teacher, I find it hard to believe the principals are not aware. Do they ignore the complaints because they don’t believe them? Are they too lazy to follow up? Do they not want to rock the boat and draw attention to the fact they might not be doing a good job? Why is is so hard for a teacher to be fired? When the complaints increase and the rumors too many to be ignored, that teacher is moved to a different grade level or a different school. Let’s not address the problem. Let’s just make it the problem of another principal or other parents. Other employers have no problem “releasing” substandard employees. Why does this not apply to school boards? Shame on them.

Old Physics Teacher

February 2nd, 2012
5:13 pm

Good Mom,

“Video cameras in the classroom, turned on all the time, with parents watching via the web.” That’s a pretty wide brush you’re tarring us all with, you know. Have you considered the possibility your boss would also want to do that to you? And also check exactly how long you take for breaks, lunch, bathroom visits? baby – bathwater, hum?

seminoles

February 2nd, 2012
6:00 pm

Old physics teacher –
There was no collusion. The other special education teachers repeatedly went to administrators to report this teacher’s actions. The investigators found that countless teachers complained about Melanie Pickens’ treatment of students.

Also, she is not teaching – she was turned in and lost her teaching certificate several years ago (when all of this occured). I saw her on the news – I think she delivers pizzas or something.

To Old Physics Teacher from Good Mom

February 2nd, 2012
7:22 pm

OPT, you ask if I would like cameras turned on me all the time to see how often I go to the bathroom and take water breaks.

I wouldn’t mind at all. Actually, when I am at the office, many things are observed and recorded by technology, including the emails I write and the websites I visit. I wouldn’t mind more scrutiny because I am honest.

What is interesting is that you would compare the length of a bathroom break to abuse of a child. There are no children where I work. There are no vulnerable, innocent souls in my reach. THere is no chance of abuse or neglect of another human being.

The stakese are enormously high. The health and life of a human being are at stake in your profession. The worst effect I could ever have in my career would be for my client to lose some money. They don’t even compare.

Honest good teachers have no worries about cameras in the classroom, only incompetent, abusive ones need to worry.

…and if you don’t like cameras in the classroom teacher, then you shouldn’t mind eating a spoon full of your colleagues semen.

To GM Troll

February 2nd, 2012
7:34 pm

Your comments on that abusive California teacher seem fixated on his forcing students to eat that teaspoon of his semen….you’ve mentioned it over and over, just as you imagined at length the anal rape of a young boy by Sandusky on an earlier blog and the toll it must have taken on his young intestines…..you are weird, clearly a guy, and really need to get professional help.