Mother Sued for Uncovering Abuse
“I ought to backhand you right in the teeth. How’s that for anxiety?”
“I’m going to pull your hair until you start crying.”
“You’re like a pygmy. You’re like a pygmy thing.”
“I’mma knock you out.”
“I am gonna beat your butt for sure and Owen, you’re gonna get one just cause.”
These were the vitriolic words thrown at children. Not just children, but young, elementary age children. Not just young children, but young special needs children. And the words came from their special education classroom teachers at Berkeley Heights Elementary School in Berkeley County, West Virginia. The verbal abuse came to light when the mother of one of the children was concerned by her daughter’s apparent fear of school. The child also had bruises, but was non-verbal and unable to explain them. So the mother hid a small voice recorder in her child’s hair and sent her to school. The five quotes above, and more, were all made in the course of one day.
The recording was made on October 4th. The mother removed her daughter from the school and delivered the recording to the local police the next day. Law enforcement determined there was no criminal conduct provable by the recording, but an officer did go immediately to the school to talk to the principal. Berkeley County Superintendent got a copy of the audio recording on October 11; the teachers on the recording remained working in the classroom until November 2nd.
The local prosecutor reviewed the case and concurred with police that criminal charges were unavailable based on the recording. There is no evidence of physical abuse based on the audio, and verbal abuse of a child is not a crime in West Virginia. The three employees involved have resigned, however, and the state’s attorney general has filed a human rights violation civil case against them.
The parents of children in the classroom have filed lawsuits against the teachers, the school, and the board for “negligent hiring and retention” and for the emotional injury to their children. One can hardly blame them, given the circumstances. The defendants have hired counsel to defend the suits, as one would expect. And they have filed a motion to exclude the audio recording, as one might also expect.
What one would not expect, however, is that the Berkeley County Board of Education would have the audacity to file their own lawsuit against Amber Pack, the mother who sent the recorder in, for invading the privacy of those teachers as they threatened and berated the most vulnerable of small children entrusted to their care.
In addition to a boat load of nerve, the BOE also has subpar legal representation. For a variety of reasons, their lawsuit is ill-advised. First of all, West Virginia is a “one party consent” state, meaning that anyone can record a conversation of which they are a part. But the teachers have contended that in some of the recordings, they were talking to each other and not to the children. For that reason, apparently, the lawsuit also accuses Amber Pack of violating West Virginia’s “wire tap” law. There is some precedent for their argument in West Virginia case law, but nothing precisely on point, and these actions took place in a public classroom. If the case makes it to court, it will no doubt be a disputed question of law for a judge.
But the optics of a school board suing a concerned parent who thought her child was being mistreated – and was correct – are infuriating. The Board and all involved are entitled to defend themselves against a civil action (which, the smart money says, will inevitably be settled out of court), but the decision to counter-attack the mother because she exposed the atrocities happening in that classroom is a ruthless and tasteless move on behalf of a body of public servants. Filing counter suits as a strategy to neutralize or gain leverage is common, but the use of this gambit here is questionable, especially if Amber Pack calls their bluff. It is doubtful a jury would have anything but contempt for the teachers, the school, or the board, if the matter ever reached deliberation.
Meanwhile, the oft-lamented “court of public opinion” has much to say about the Berkeley County school system’s actions here, and none of it is good. The teachers are gone, and the child who carried the recorder has moved to another school where her mother reports she is thriving. Being a special ed teacher is a calling, and no doubt the majority of them are kind, nurturing and effective. But the troubled undercurrent remains: how many classrooms see things like this? Many special education children, like Amber Pack’s daughter, are non-verbal. They don’t come home and tell their parents they are being abused in school.
One can only hope that what happened in Berkeley County puts all those who don’t belong in those classrooms on notice: their actions behind closed doors may not always be so.
Note: As of the afternoon of Wednesday, May 1, reports are that the lawsuit by the Board of Education has been dropped. The counter-suits from the teachers remain pending.