This is Paige’s story

Today’s guest author is Ann Gaydos. Ann worked in the software industry in a former life, but she decided to homeschool her four children after her daughter Paige was abused by a teacher within the Cupertino Union School District in California, and she could get no help from the administration or school board. Her interests include reading, traveling, cooking, writing, and spending time with her family and their many pets.

Restraints and seclusions are gateways to physical and emotional abuse, especially in the absence of adequate oversight. Unfortunately, our former school district failed to provide a safe classroom environment for my seven-year-old autistic daughter, Paige, when she joined a multi-grade special day class at Eisenhower Elementary, a school within the Cupertino Union School District (CUSD) in California. The district allowed her teacher to treat Paige and other children illegally, abusively, and inappropriately. I wish I had simply homeschooled her from the start.

Paige from around the time she started school at Eisenhower. 

(Please note: All CUSD staff and board members referenced here left a long time ago. I recently corresponded with the current superintendent of CUSD and believe her to be a compassionate professional who genuinely cares about the safety of the children in her care. However, I know the problems we experienced are not uncommon, and I hope this narrative will help others in some way.) 


The Culminating Incident

I could hear the teacher screaming long before I reached the office, my three younger children in tow. It was the last week of summer school, and I had been called at the end of the school day to pick up my daughter, who usually took the bus home. By the time I arrived at the school, it was deserted except for the teacher, a behaviorist, a program therapist, and Paige. The teacher was yelling, and Paige was so overwhelmed by the noise that she simply could not cope. The teacher, behaviorist, and therapist were all behaving very strangely, and none of them would meet my eye. I spoke to the teacher for several minutes, but she never looked me in the face or told me that Paige had been restrained and hurt. On the drive home, Paige burst into tears and said, “Mommy, I’ve been hurt all day.” I turned around as she lifted her sleeve and saw a large abrasion on her shoulder.

The front of her body was red and scuffed. It wasn’t until the next morning that I found a huge lump on her head. Nobody at the school had informed me that she had been restrained or injured. 

The Prelude

For a year leading up to that day, my husband and I had worked very hard with the teacher and the principal of Eisenhower Elementary to keep our daughter safe in school. We had concerns from the start as our 40-pound child was violently and painfully restrained for such offenses as wiggling a loose tooth in the seclusion cubicle and refusing to do her math worksheets. On one occasion, she came home saying, “Mommy, my teacher hurt me; my teacher hurt me and I couldn’t breathe.” She had a bruise on her hip after being subjected to a straddle restraint. After Paige had been in the classroom for only a few weeks, we were tipped off by a teacher’s aide, Mrs. R., that the teacher was abusing children. I immediately met with the teacher and principal and gave them a letter stating that Paige could no longer be restrained and that my husband and I were to be called immediately if there was a problem. The principal informed me that, if I took away the option of restraints, the school would have to call the police if Paige became unmanageable. I called her bluff and said that would be fine (I was quite confident they would not call the police over a 40-pound child refusing to do her schoolwork or wiggling a loose tooth). I shared Mrs. R.’s input and my own concerns with the principal, who said she had to report the bruise “to protect herself.” She never did. She repeatedly stated that Mrs. R. had “no credibility, no credibility whatsoever” and convinced me that she had been a major problem. She seemed unconcerned about the teacher’s conduct. I was suspicious of the teacher at the time but still trusted the principal.

Given the teacher’s dangerously unhinged behavior, it is possible that Mrs. R. may have saved Paige’s life by warning my husband of the classroom abuse and prompting us to intervene, and for this I will be forever grateful to her. Unfortunately she experienced ruthless retaliation from CUSD for her kindness. 

An uneasy truce followed. The restraints stopped, and my husband and I spent as much time as we could in the classroom to make sure Paige was safe. Alas, another slew of incidents followed in rapid succession. Paige was being kept in seclusion for hours at a stretch, and one day she came home with a bruise across her nose after a questionable intervention. We were extremely suspicious and intervened immediately. The principal avoided contact with me until the bruise had disappeared and then derided my anxiety and sighed heavily when I spoke to her. Eventually, I became exasperated and told her that I expected her to address the problem and to keep Paige safe. There could be no more “incidents.” If there was one more, I warned her, I would have to “look at all my options,” which was a euphemism for “I’ll sue your ass,” and I think she understood that. At the time, I was not seriously considering a lawsuit, but she was so unresponsive that I felt I needed to wave a big stick. 

This veiled threat had a most salutary effect. The principal suggested another Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting, and the normally overbearing teacher suddenly became extremely acquiescent and cooperative. She began treating Paige quite well, and by the time of the IEP, I felt almost reassured. The IEP meeting was packed, mostly with people I did not know. Five minutes in, the principal gave me a long, calculating look and then excused herself. I emphatically told the assembled group that Paige “could not come home hurt or bruised again!” There was a long, awkward silence, during which everyone looked down. The Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) representative gently supported us and said that, as parents, my husband and I had to know Paige was safe at school. The resulting IEP stated that the teacher could not restrain Paige or keep her in seclusion for hours at a stretch, that my husband or I had to be called at the first sign of trouble, and that we could take her home at any time.  

A honeymoon period followed as our “policy of containment” of the teacher held. The teacher was, for the most part, on her best behavior, and all the children in the classroom seemed happier and more relaxed. Paige, after vigorously resisting going to school, began to enjoy her time in the classroom, and our agreement meant she could safely experience some of the benefits of the classroom without being endangered. 

If we had known, as the district did, of the many prior complaints about this teacher we would have realized that this arrangement would not last long.

The Struggle to Communicate with CUSD

So here we were (immediately after the culminating incident) on a beautiful summer day in July with a history behind us and an injured child in front of us who was terrified of returning to school — and nobody would tell us what had happened in the classroom to cause her injuries. We began seeking answers. 

The next day, I called the summer school principal to discuss what had happened. She told me the teacher had brought Paige to the office, claiming there had been “an accident” and asking for an ice pack for Paige’s head. I had not been informed of this, either when she called me to collect Paige or when I picked Paige up from school. I should have been told about it as I should have been observing Paige for signs of a subdural hemorrhage. 

Paige had a doctor’s appointment the day after the attack, and the doctor immediately noticed the abrasion on her shoulder. After speaking to Paige, whom she found extremely credible, and feeling the lump on Paige’s head, she told me that she felt very strongly that this teacher should not be working with children, that what she did to Paige constituted child abuse, and that, as a mandated child abuse reporter, she had to file a report. She initially contacted Child Protect Services (CPS), which has no jurisdiction over public school teachers, and referred her to the police. She then called the police, who later came to our house, photographed Paige’s shoulder, and took a report. 

For a long time, we did not hear from the police and neither did the district. One day, the HR director called me at home and asked, repeatedly and aggressively, if “there really had been a police report.” Long after I had given him the case number and the contact information for one of the police officers, he continued to badger me. To get him off the phone, I referred him to Paige’s doctor (who had called the police) and suggested he talk to her. She told me she found his call “very strange.” She eagerly tried to share her perspective and concerns with him, but he refused to listen and only wanted to know whether there had in fact been a police report. Months later, we learned the police had decided not to prosecute the case because we assured them Paige would never return to that classroom, and they assumed that we would keep Paige safe and that the administration would take care of the problem.

I tracked down the teacher’s aide who had previously alerted us to the abuse. She had repeatedly warned the administration about the teacher and tried to protect the children. She was accused of “insubordination” for challenging the teacher, and the district tried to fire her. She was also ordered not to speak to the parents again. Alarmed by our story, she tried to call the superintendent to share her concerns, but he was, according to his secretary, “unavailable.” She then asked the secretary for the time and location of the next board meeting as she wanted to address the board. She says the secretary told her that “board meetings are not for people like you” and hung up on her. 

I also called the special education director. He seemed genuinely upset, and he later met with the teacher and obtained her version of events. Although I asked him repeatedly, he would never share the teacher’s account with me. He appeared to have little power within the district and was unable to help. 

By this point, I was ready to give up on everyone as far up the chain of command as the HR director. Next in line was the superintendent, whom I tried to call twice. I left messages with his secretary, but he never returned my calls. 

The next step was to speak to the school board. I emailed all five board members, using the email addresses I found on the district website and copied the superintendent. One board member called back and mentioned the possibility of a lawsuit. Later, the reigning majority on the board would censor him for offering this suggestion. I also spoke directly to a different board member, whom I cornered while we were picking up our sons from school one day. She told me that the board could do nothing as “it was an internal matter.” As I learned more, I sent further emails, complete with contact information for pertinent witnesses, to the board. There was no response. My letters appear to have been intercepted as the board members later said they didn’t receive them. In his deposition, the superintendent stated that emails to the board members didn’t go directly to them — they went to his secretary. She was supposed to print out the emails and place them in the board members’ files. When asked why the board members did not receive my later emails, the superintendent became red-faced, angry, and agitated, and he resigned the following day. 

After getting no response from the board, we had exhausted our appeals within the district. Paige missed eight months of school and was technically truant for most of that time. The teacher and principal were back at Eisenhower Elementary, so she certainly couldn’t go there. Paige had regressed academically at Eisenhower. Before joining that classroom, she scored well above the 99th percentile on standardized tests, but she left as an average student. Paige was such an enthusiastic and insatiable learner before she attended Eisenhower that I found it exhausting to homeschool her. Now she was listless and discouraged, and she has never fully recovered her former love of learning. Our concerns about the district led us to withdraw our younger children from CUSD, and we taught them at home. My husband took several months off work to help me homeschool our children and to take care of Paige. 

We could get absolutely no explanation out of anyone as to how Paige had been hurt on her last day at CUSD, and we were not going to send her back to any school in the district until we did. We finally made CUSD place Paige in a non-public school, where we connected with other victims of the same teacher. Hearing the parents’ hurt and pain and understanding how badly their children had been damaged, I sent another letter to the CUSD board members. When I again received no response, it became clear that I was wasting my time with both the administration and the board. To them, I was only “the mom,” and I didn’t need to know how my child had been hurt. If I wanted answers, I’d have to file a lawsuit, which I did. 

The Absence of Incident Reports

There were no incident reports that would have helped us understand how Paige was injured. In her deposition, the principal of Eisenhower Elementary said, “We didn’t have incident reports then.” She repeated this with respect to both seclusions and restraints. At the time, it was required by law to file incident reports at the district, county, and state levels. 

Later, when it became apparent that the district was in a lot of trouble for failing to file these reports, CUSD changed its story and claimed they had always faithfully filed incident reports. So why couldn’t the district produce a single one? Why had I checked all three locations (district, county, state) and there wasn’t a single incident report at any of them? Ummm … the dog ate them.

Why were there no incident reports? Before Paige started at Eisenhower, a child’s mother became so concerned about abusive restraints that she took the same training course that the teachers received. (Her daughter was not at Eisenhower but a different school within CUSD with a different teacher.) As a result, she was able to identify inappropriate procedures described in the incident reports provided to her by staff. She attended a board meeting to communicate her concerns and says the reason CUSD stopped doing incident reports was that, because of her intervention, it became afraid of leaving a paper trail of inappropriate restraints. She said her efforts to advocate for her daughter were met with resistance and hostility from the district, and she was harassed by aggressive phone calls from district staff. 

Incident reports are not meaningless red tape — they prevent abuse. Dr. Paul Smith, an educational expert who helped pass the Hughes Bill, explained that agents review these reports at the state level. Even the highly sanitized descriptions the teacher provided in the deposition would have raised red flags and triggered a state investigation.

Abuse before the Culminating Incident

Through our lawsuit, we learned of several prior and contemporaneous cases of abuse by the same teacher. Here are some examples …

A couple of years before Paige started at Eisenhower Elementary, a father had filed a complaint with the state about this teacher after his seven-year-old daughter came home with a bruise on her chin. His daughter was at Montclaire Elementary, also within CUSD, at the time. His SELPA representative indicated to him that the teacher had been fired. Instead, she was moved to Eisenhower Elementary.

Once at Eisenhower, this teacher kept a six-year-old (he spent his seventh birthday there) in seclusion for the entire school day — six hours — for 23 school days in a row. In the deposition, the principal admitted to being aware of this. This little boy was denied food and water except at lunchtime and was allowed only one trip to the bathroom each day. When this caused him to have an accident, the teacher humiliated him. He started bedwetting during this time, and his doctor wrote a note saying this was due to “school stress” and not because of any physiological problem. The school bus driver warned his mother that the teacher regularly paraded him between the classroom and the bus “in an inhumane and humiliating manner” with his wrists twisted up between his shoulder blades. His mother saw the teacher shove him. When he came home with a rug burn after being restrained, his mother gave a full account of her concerns to the principal and the Director of Pupil Services and demanded that the teacher be reprimanded and dismissed. She also talked to the person who trained CUSD staff in restraint techniques. He told her that the teacher had put her son at risk for head and neck injuries, and he passed this information on to the district. The mother then made the district place her son in the same non-public school Paige later attended, which is how I met her. 

Shortly after this boy was removed from the classroom, Mrs. R., a caring and dedicated teacher’s aide, began working there. She quickly developed concerns about the teacher and initially tried to work with the principal. When this failed, she held several meetings with other administrators. She met with the second-in-command in HR and told her that the teacher was excessively rough with the children and regularly denied their basic needs, and she mentioned that classroom academics were inadequate. She also met with the Special Education Director and SELPA representative and showed them the part of her training manual that identified four categories of behavior that were specifically forbidden — excessive use of force, verbal and emotional abuse, denial of basic physical needs, and peer discipline — and established that violations in these areas were illegal. Mrs. R.’s pay was docked for time spent in that meeting. She carefully documented specific instances of behaviors within these four categories and then tried to hold another meeting with the teacher, principal, and HR director to review them (in her deposition, the Eisenhower school principal “couldn’t recall” what that meeting was about). After just a few minutes, the HR director terminated the meeting and sent her home. Thereafter, he moved to fire her for “insubordination” because she “challenged” the teacher. When it transpired she had done nothing “fireable,” he tried to move her to another classroom. She refused to accept the transfer unless the teacher was fired, which, alas, didn’t happen. Finally — exhausted, discouraged, and exhibiting physical symptoms of stress — she resigned.

She says the teacher retaliated against her viciously and on one occasion physically attacked her.

She tried to report the attack to the HR director, but he returned her complaint as “unfounded” (it took me five minutes to speak to another aide who witnessed the incident and who verified the gist of Mrs. R.’s story). Later she too would consult a lawyer, who told her that she had “an open and shut case” and it was “obvious what the district was doing” but that her statute of limitations had expired. Her concerns and observations were exactly mirrored by Dr. Smith (our expert witness and an authority on special education law), my daughter’s doctor, two therapists who had the opportunity to work or observe in the teacher’s classroom, and multiple parents.

I spoke to several other parents whose children were damaged during this teacher’s tenure at Eisenhower and heard their accounts of inappropriate restraints, hours spent in seclusion, psychological abuse, denial of bathroom access, and failure to follow the children’s IEPs. We were all disappointed with the Eisenhower principal and her indifference. Dr. Smith, our expert witness who had helped to pass the Hughes Bill, was very critical of the principal, who resigned the day after we took his deposition. Her friends in the district hired her back as a contractor, meaning she kept both her pension and her job. 

Abuse after the Culminating Incident

Even after Paige had been hurt and we had taken our concerns to the superintendent and board, the teacher was returned to the classroom at Eisenhower Elementary, where the problem inevitably continued.

During this time, a program therapist noticed the teacher psychologically abusing a child and called CPS. As usual, CPS suggested that she call the police or speak to the administration. She spoke to the principal, and shortly thereafter the teacher left for another district in Clearlake, CA. In her deposition, the principal looked trapped and angry when asked about this and claimed she “could not recall” the discussion with the program therapist. 

Our lawyer was able to get a private detective, posing as a parent, into the teacher’s classroom at her new district in northern California. While there he made contact with an employee from Lake County, who had been asked to observe in the classroom following complaints of child abuse (these involved emotional and not physical abuse). She told him she was “amazed” by the demeaning way the teacher spoke to children and believed the teacher was perpetrating psychological abuse.

The Trial

In the weeks before the trial, we offered to settle for only our legal fees provided that the district made some changes. With no real defense, however, CUSD lurched recklessly into a trial. We would have preferred a “bench trial,” which would have been heard by the judge rather than a jury and would have taken about three days. The district, knowing that the judge has seen and heard evidence that was excluded in our case, insisted on a jury trial and dragged it out for three weeks. I think their lawyer was paid by the hour.

The district’s lawyers filed motion after motion to exclude evidence, and our lawyer simply couldn’t respond to everyone, so some of our facts had to be hidden. I was uncomfortable with the way the district tried to smear Paige.

The bald-faced deceit from the district’s key witnesses became increasingly surreal. Thankfully, our jurors were astute and perceptive and were disturbed by the assault on truth.

Before presenting its witnesses at trial, the district might have considered the old adage about it being better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. One could substitute “liar” or “administrator demonstrating deliberate indifference” for “fool.” The principal repulsed the jurors by, among other things, smirking ghoulishly as she described a child writhing in pain during a restraint. The evidence clearly indicated that the teacher lied compulsively. On the stand, she obligingly reinforced this perception by generating new and contradictory versions of events in rapid succession. At one point, she even claimed she had thrown Paige on her head because it was 115°F outside. My husband produced records showing that the temperature in San Jose, CA, peaked in the mid-seventies that day. The district’s lawyer would later tell the board members in closed session that he had “lost control of the witness.” In other words, the teacher had behaved in character rather than saying what the lawyer had groomed her to say.

Apart from the blatant perjury, the district indulged in equally obvious witness tampering. A disturbed parent, the mother of one of Paige’s classmates, was produced to help fabricate yet another version of “how Paige got hurt,” and it was clear she and the teacher had colluded in manufacturing their account. The district’s lawyer must have known she was lying (I give him credit for not being stupid enough to believe her). Thankfully for us, her story fell apart very quickly. The jurors thought she was unwell and dismissed her testimony, but they resented having to spend hours listening to her rambling narrative, which occasionally degenerated into the bizarre and contradicted the teacher’s testimony, that of other witnesses, and the documented evidence. Needless to say, other witnesses for the district were fed this mother’s falsehoods, which must have tainted their perceptions and their testimony.

The Aftermath of the Trial

The morning after closing arguments, I was on a flight back to Denver (we had since moved) and could not wait to get home. As I worried that the jurors would be befuddled by the sheer volume of the district’s lies, I looked out of the plane window. Not far below, the immutable, white peaks of the Rocky Mountains sparkled in dazzling purity against a flawless blue sky, and my anxiety gave way to a calm assurance that the truth would prevail. When we landed, several voicemails were waiting on my phone. The jurors had already delivered their verdict, and we had won overwhelmingly. My brother, a pediatrician who sometimes has to provide evidence in child abuse cases, had followed Paige’s story with deep concern. He heard our news as he was driving to work and (and I will always cherish the memory) had to pull over to the side of the road because he was crying so much with joy and relief. 

The jurors were vehement and unanimous in their verdict. They were so indignant and outraged by the case that all but one of them, who only stayed an hour due to back pain, remained for three hours after delivering the verdict to talk to the lawyers on both sides.

They were deeply disturbed by the abuse. To them, Paige was the star witness, and they loved her innocence and honesty. In refreshing contrast to the testimony of the district’s key witnesses, Paige’s story never wavered and was the only account that explained the nature and location of her documented injuries. The jurors felt strong antipathy toward the teacher and principal, whom they considered arrogant and callous. They were also surprisingly knowledgeable about the educational system and felt that the absence of incident reports and other documentation was very damaging to the district’s defense.

Back at the district, there was consternation as the administration and the district’s lawyer tried to reframe the narrative. The head of public relations and media at CUSD sent out an email to all teachers claiming that the jurors had “found no evidence of abuse.” This was another outright falsehood. The jurors were adamant that Paige had been abused and were so distressed by the fact that they spent three hours after the trial berating the district’s lawyer about it. However, for a verdict of liability they had to conclude that the teacher not only abused children (they were adamant that she did) but that she understood she was being abusive. On this latter point, they felt there were mitigating factors of diminished responsibility. They also thought the teacher had been so badly managed and had been allowed to get away with so much for so long that she could not truly understand her responsibilities. Once again, though, we taxpayers had to fund a district employee to lie to and mislead people — and in ways that had negative consequences for children’s safety. 

The district wanted to appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit, while the judge insisted our family “had to be made whole.” Eventually, we settled for a lower amount than the jury had awarded to Paige. It may not have been the best decision, in retrospect, but we were ready to move on and had accomplished most of our goals. 

Conclusions

Our lawsuit was overall a success. The teacher, principal, HR director, and superintendent left and were no longer working with children, and most of the board members left shortly thereafter. CUSD was placed under federal judicial oversight for two years, which helped to keep children safe. The district became more compliant with laws relating to restraints and documentation. 

Parents should not have to rely on lawsuits as their only option. If the district had responded appropriately, we would not have needed to sue. We were fortunate that the district so obligingly exposed its ugly underbelly at trial in our case, but trials can be capricious. It is very difficult to sue a school district (or any public entity) because they have so many protections (for example, the statute of limitations for school districts in California is only six months). Corrupt school districts too often hide behind their lawyers, and the public should not have to fund exorbitantly expensive coverups.

Structures external to the district failed children. Child Protective Services has no jurisdiction over public school teachers and referred complainants to the police or administration. The police rarely prosecute abuse by public school teachers because they believe school administrators will intervene. There is no centralized repository, as far as I know, for complaints about teachers. In our case, parents, professionals, and staff had complained not only to the district but also to the state, CPS, and the police, and yet this teacher was allowed to continue abusing children.

As parents, we need to be careful of being overly trusting. I worked with my daughter’s teacher and principal in good faith for far too long, and I will always have to live with the consequences of that decision. Maybe I’m unusually gullible, or perhaps I’ve been fortunate in avoiding sociopaths, but in my experience people very rarely flat-out lie or manipulate, and my trust hurt my child. 

Cronyism led to a lack of professionalism within CUSD. The district at the time was led by a cabal of close friends, and three of the five board members were co-opted into this group. In-group members failed to hold one another accountable and promoted one another to positions beyond their abilities. This led to a lack of objective oversight that put the district on a collision course with reality.

Our best defense as parents is the Internet. Social media groups allow us to share our experiences and to warn one another of potential minefields. They give us transparency and some degree of oversight. I am grateful to the Alliance against Seclusion and Restraint for its commitment to keeping children safe and for giving us — parents and children — the opportunity to share our stories.


Examining the Abusive and Deadly Use of Seclusion and Restraint in Schools

Ann Gaydos, mother of a victim, testifies at a hearing examining the abusive and deadly use of seclusion and restraint on May 19, 2009.

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