(NEW YORK) — A New Jersey dad who suspected something was “horrifyingly wrong” at school when his autistic son began acting violently, had the boy wear a digital recorder and discovered teachers verbally abusing him.
Stuart Chaifetz, 44, described his 10-year-old son Akian as a “sweet and gentle child” with a penchant for acrobatics and a deep bond with his three dogs. So Chaifetz said it was totally out of character when he began receiving reports from Horace Mann Elementary School that Akian was hitting his teacher and a teacher’s aide.
“The thing that said to me that something horrifyingly wrong was going on was that he was hitting the teacher and the aide. I have never seen him hit anyone. He’s just not a violent kid,” Chaifetz told ABC News.
Akian spent six months working with behaviorists and other specialists who were trying to find the problem. Finally, Akian was put in a controlled scenario that pushed him to his limits and, still, he did not lash out violently.
“I realized that there was something terrible going on in that classroom and I needed to know what it was,” Chaifetz said.
Chaifetz put a digital recorder in Akian’s pocket on a February school day. Akian is in a self-contained autism class with five other students and the device recorded six-and-a-half hours of audio. When Akian came home from school and Chaifetz listened to the audio, he was shocked by what he heard.
“When I listened to what they had done to him, I just shattered inside,” Chaifetz said.
Chaifetz heard the teacher and aide calling Akian names, making fun of him, yelling at him and having inappropriate conversations in front of the children.
“The culture was so dysfunctional that an adult felt she could make fun of a child with a disability and nothing would happen to her,” Chaifetz said. “If it wasn’t captured on the audio, she probably would still be making fun of my son. That’s a bully.”
Akian, according to Chaifetz, has a tendency to speak softly to himself. When he was doing so in class, a teacher or aide can be heard saying angrily, “Who are you talking to? Nobody. Knock it off.” Akian is also told several times to shut his mouth.
After being scolded several times, Akian begins to cry and the administrator said, “Go ahead and scream because guess what? You’re going to get nothing until your mouth is shut.”
At another point, the teacher or aide calls Akian a “bastard” when he will not stop crying.
“He’s the best human being I’ve ever met and these people were taking it away because they were crushing his spirit,” Chaifetz said. “If I had not spoken out and released that video, it would have been like it never happened, except to Akian because it happened to him and he knows it.”
Chaifetz took the audio to school officials.
“They were shocked and horrified as I was and I appreciate the fact that they took immediate action and fired one of the aides in the class,” he said. “The problem is that they didn’t fire the teacher because of tenure and she was moved to another school.”
Chaifetz was outraged that the teacher was not fired.
“I don’t want her teaching anyone ever again,” he said. “She lost her privilege to do that.”
The Cherry Hill school district issued a statement on its website regarding the incident, which included the following: “We strongly believe that the district acted swiftly, appropriately and judiciously with regard to the staff in the classroom,” Board of Education President Seth Klukoff wrote. “What’s more, we are confident that these decisions were informed first and foremost by compassion for the students.”
Superintendent Dr. Maureen Reusche added, “Although this is a personnel matter and there are specifics that I cannot legally address publicly, I want to assure our parents that the individuals who are heard on the recording raising their voices and inappropriately addressing children no longer work in the district and have not since shortly after we received the copy of the recording.”
Chaifetz has not been satisfied with the action taken.
“I’m not at war with the school district. I’m fighting the people that actually did this,” Chaifetz said. In the video, he identifies the teacher and aide only as Jodi and Kelly. He said he did not want to release their last names and demanded that they come forward to publicly apologize. He has not heard from them.
“You don’t hurt my son and get away with it, but that’s what they were doing,” he said. “They told me, ‘It’s a personnel matter and we can’t talk about it.’ Well, you can’t talk about it, but I can. I’m not going to keep this a secret.”
An outraged Chaifetz took to the Internet to defend his son and draw awareness to the issue.
He posted a video on YouTube called Teacher/Bully: How My Son Was Humiliated and Tormented by his Teacher and Aide on April 20. The video now has more than 210,000 hits and counting. Chaifetz also created a Facebook page called No More Teacher Bullies and built a website with his story and the audio he recorded. He has found comfort in hundreds of emails and phone calls from supporters all over the world.
He hopes to lobby for legislation to fire any teacher who bullies a student, regardless of tenure or any other union restrictions.
“One part of this was to reclaim my son’s dignity. He’ll need closure one day,” Chaifetz said. “I want him to know that he mattered. He was defended and he was loved.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Chuck Johnston, CNN Newswire
Ray Sanchez, CNN Newswire