Autistic children abused in Pa. classroom to get $5 million to settle federal lawsuit

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Friday, May 28, 2010

Autistic kids abused in Pa. classroom to get $5M

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The families of seven autistic students who were abused by their teacher in a northeastern Pennsylvania classroom have agreed to a $5 million settlement of their federal lawsuit.

Former special education teacher Susan Wzorek pleaded no contest to reckless endangerment and spent six weeks in prison in 2005 after prosecutors alleged she subjected her students to a range of abuse, from hitting them, pulling their hair and stomping on their feet to strapping them to chairs with duct tape and bungee cords.

“Her teaching tools were fear, intimidation and physical assault,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Larry Moran.

The students were between 5 and 11 years old at the time of the abuse. Their families filed a federal lawsuit against Wzorek and her superiors, alleging they knew about the abuse but took steps to cover it up.

The settlement, which U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo approved Thursday night, does not require the defendants to admit wrongdoing.

Wzorek worked at Clarks Summit Elementary School in the Abington Heights School District but was employed by Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19, an education agency that provides services to public school districts in the area.

“We believe that the (education agency) acted promptly and appropriately under the circumstances. Nevertheless, settlement is best for all concerned,” said John Freund III, who represented some of the defendants.

Wzorek’s criminal attorney has said she never intentionally harmed any student and alleged that she was not provided with adequate training, guidance or support.

At issue was Wzorek’s conduct from 2001 to 2003, when, the suit said, she regularly used abusive and illegal techniques to discipline her students.

In one incident, Wzorek twice slapped a child across the face, giving her a fat lip, then told the girl’s mother that she had injured herself by falling, the suit alleged. Months later, when two teaching assistants confronted Wzorek about the abuse, Wzorek replied, “I know, but I don’t know how to stop,” according to the suit.

The assistants reported Wzorek to her bosses at Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19. But the officials conducted no meaningful investigation, failed to report the abuse to police, and merely shuttled the abusive teacher to a neighboring school district, the suit said.

The principal at Clarks Summit even accused the teaching assistants of “breaking a silent code,” similar to the code among police officers, the suit said.

Police began investigating after the parent of a 10-year-old boy reported that she believed her son had been the victim of physical abuse. Teaching aides later told investigators that Wzorek had dragged the boy across the room, pulled his hair and used duct tape to restrain him using a chair designed to provide muscular support for children with physical disabilities.

The chairs are not meant to be used to discipline students, and none of Wzorek’s students had a handicap that would have required their use, prosecutors said. Many of the children were nonverbal and used picture cards to communicate.

Wzorek, who worked with disabled students for decades, was stripped of her state teaching certification following her arrest.

The suit named Wzorek; the school district; the education agency; Fred Rosetti, the agency’s executive director; and Clarence Lamanna, the agency’s director of special education.

Moran said the abuse had a devastating effect the students, who in some cases might never develop proper communication and social skills.

“One of the real diabolical aspects of this case was (they) literally could not complain to anyone,” he said. “They are very badly scarred.”

A civil trial had been scheduled to begin last month in Scranton, but was put off when the parties agreed to settle. The settlement is the largest in Pennsylvania history related to special education programs and among the top five nationwide, Moran said

He said he hopes the case sends a signal that abuse of disabled children will not be tolerated and that “all educators have an important duty and responsibility to accommodate and properly educate all children, especially children with disabilities, and absolutely refrain from the use of illegal restraints and corporal punishment.”

The Government Accountability Office reported last year that it found hundreds of cases of abuse of special education students around the country stemming from the improper use of restraints and seclusion.

Money from the settlement, less attorneys’ fees and court costs, will be placed in trust funds set up for each child. Individual amounts range from $400,000 to $1.25 million. The defendants’ insurance carrier will pay the full amount, Moran said.

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