How school districts shield themselves from accountability and endanger children by muzzling, abusing, and discrediting people of conscience
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. Today Ann is a volunteer with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.
Whistleblowers risk retaliation, ostracization, defamation, career sabotage, and, in extreme cases, workplace violence. Unfortunately, a teacher’s aide who tried to protect my child and others from their abusive teacher experienced all of the above. These events took place in a special day class at Eisenhower Elementary, a school within the Cupertino Union School District in California (CUSD). The abuser had only worked as a teacher for a little over two years, yet there had already been several complaints about her. Just before Mrs. R. started working with this person, a parent had withdrawn her child from the school amidst vociferous and well-documented assertions of child abuse and threats of a lawsuit. My child joined the classroom shortly before Mrs. R. left, and my husband and I were sniffing around asking awkward questions about suspicious bruises. There were other complaints. At the time, Mrs. R. was an eyewitness in the classroom and was carefully documenting specific instances of abuse. This made her a threat to the administration, who decided that an orchestrated demolition was in order.
Special needs children are particularly vulnerable to abuse as they may be non-speaking or otherwise disabled. Children don’t always recognize abuse, and therefore don’t always ask for help.
It is therefore imperative that administrators be particularly sensitive to those who can be their eyes and ears in the classroom. My daughter’s school principal repeatedly dismissed my concerns about this teacher on the grounds that she “never saw anything inappropriate.” However, I have no doubt the teacher behaved differently in her boss’s presence than she did when she was with junior staff.
My husband and I would eventually sue the district for abusing our child. When the case went to trial, I hoped that Mrs. R. would have the catharsis of sharing her story. Unfortunately, we never obtained a certified copy of her deposition from the transcription company, which made it difficult for our lawyer to produce her at trial. I don’t know what happened to the deposition transcript, but I was never billed for it, and our lawyer did not receive a copy.
We won handily without Mrs. R.’s evidence, but I have always regretted that she was denied the opportunity to be heard — to prove that the district abused her as well as the children in that classroom. When she consulted an employment lawyer a year after she left the district, he told her she had an “open and shut case” and that “it was obvious what the district was trying to do,” but by then her statute of limitations had expired.
The district made much of a minor conflict, which appears to have been a misunderstanding, that Mrs. R. had once had. They ignored her years of stellar service, during which she received the highest possible ratings in every category (I’ve seen her employee evaluations). She had a large box, full of cards and letters from co-workers, parents, and students who praised her for her incredible kindness and gentleness. People thanked her profusely for her patience and her ability to motivate special needs children, and they told her they learned so much from her. My daughter and her classmates adored her. Math lessons with Mrs. R. were the highlight of my daughter’s school day.
I was sickened and disgusted when I heard Mrs. R.’s story. Here is a list of the people, she spoke to in her efforts to keep children safe in that classroom, and the responses she received.
1) The teacher: Mrs. R. initially tried to work with the teacher.
Response: The teacher became hostile, tried to turn parents and staff against Mrs. R. by lying about her, and physically and psychologically bullied and intimidated her.
2) The principal: Mrs. R. tried to speak to the principal about the abuse of the children and herself.
Response: The principal failed to thoroughly investigate Mrs. R.’s concerns, badmouthed her, and comprehensively failed to protect either her or the children.
3) The second-in-command in HR: Mrs. R. met with her to tell her that the teacher was excessively rough with the children and that classroom academics were inadequate.
Response: There doesn’t appear to have been a response.
4) The Special Education Director and the SELPA representative: Mrs. R. held a meeting with these two in which she identified four areas in which the teacher was violating the children’s rights as described in her training manual. These were:
- Excessive use of force
- Verbal and emotional abuse
- Denial of basic physical needs
- Peer discipline
She established that violations in these areas were illegal.
Response: Mrs. R.’s pay was docked for time spent in that meeting. I have a hard copy of a memo — copied to the HR director — reminding Mrs. R of the meeting, and stating the time and date it would be held, along with a copy of Mrs. R.’s job report, which shows time spent in that meeting marked as “leave w/o pay.” The time and date match up.
5) The HR director: Mrs. R. tried to file a formal complaint with the HR director about the teacher’s physical attack on her, as described below, and tried to talk to him about the abuse of the children and herself.
Response: The HR director failed to do due diligence and to thoroughly investigate Mrs. R.’s concerns, and he tried to silence her and to fire her on trumped-up charges when she became a threat to the administration’s self-interest. He shouted her down when she tried to tell him about the classroom abuse.
6) The HR director, principal, and teacher: After documenting specific instances of abuse in the four areas mentioned above, Mrs. R. called a meeting with these people to share her concerns.
Response: The HR director abruptly terminated the meeting, sent Mrs. R. home, and moved to fire her, as described below.
7) The Superintendent’s Secretary: Mrs. R called her to find out the time and location of the next board meeting, as she wanted to share her concerns with the board.
Response: The secretary refused to provide the requested information, told Mrs. R. that “board meetings are not for people like you,” and hung up on her. Mrs. R. wondered whether “people like you” was an ethnic slur.
Mrs. R. has had no relief, no acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and no thanks for her courage in speaking up. She is getting on in years and still sometimes cries when she thinks about her experiences. I still hope, after all these years, that one day something will be done to address this injustice.
Since Mrs. R. did not have the opportunity to tell her story in court, I will tell it here, just as she told it to me …
Mrs. R., sat at a table in the classroom facing the teacher, who was reading to the class. Beside her lay a student’s “home to school” journal or “log,” which was passed back and forth between the teacher and the student’s parents to share information. Mrs. R.’s relationship with the teacher had soured after she began reporting the teacher’s abusive behavior. The teacher had begun to poison her reputation. She had recently sent a child home with a journal entry claiming an aide (Mrs. R.) had upset him and caused him to have a bad day. The account was untrue, but was hurtful to Mrs. R. Had the teacher lied about her again? Mrs. R. longed to peek into the journal to see if she was again being maligned. Her hand crept over to the book, and she picked it up and looked inside.
Suddenly, she heard running feet and looked up. To her horror, the teacher, her face a mask of rage, was charging her with outstretched fists. Before she could react, the teacher plowed across the table, fists slamming into Mrs. R.’s chest. She grabbed the book and shook it violently back and forth as a dog shakes a bone. Finally, red-faced, angry, and self-righteous, the teacher stalked away with the book.
Mrs. R. was left shocked and shaken. A scratch on her hand bled slightly. The whole thing had been so unexpected and had happened so quickly that she wasn’t sure whether the scratch was caused by a ring on the teacher’s hand or by a paper cut from the book. She would have a red mark on her chest from the teacher’s fists for 24 hours. The incident left her badly frightened.
“I was terrified to go to school,” she told me later. “My husband had to calm me down every morning. I only continued to go because my own fear helped me to understand how frightened the children must have been.”
Mrs. R. was later given a copy of the teacher’s version of the incident. The teacher claims she “walked over, said ‘Excuse me,’ and took the log from Mrs. R.” She “then went back to the front of the classroom and continued reading the story with the log tucked under her arm.” She states that “Mrs. R. placed a call on the intercom and demanded a meeting” with the principal.
After the attack, still shaking and close to tears, Mrs. R. hurried over to the office. The principal was busy and said she’d speak to her later. When they finally met, Mrs. R. found her frustratingly unhelpful.
Much later, when the principal was deposed as part of my family’s complaint, our lawyer asked her about Mrs. R’s injuries. She laughed like a hyena.
“I am laughing because we’re talking about a little composition book, not even hardcover. Nothing. Flimsy thing,” she responded.
So … workplace violence was hilariously funny because a furiously shaken book could only inflict minor injuries? No wonder our jurors would later find the principal abhorrently callous.
The principal repeatedly denied that Mrs. R. had ever complained to her about the attack, although the teacher herself said Mrs. R. had immediately called the principal over the intercom about it. Later, the superintendent’s secretary would unwittingly reveal that the administration was indeed aware of the violent attack on Mrs. R. When I tried to leave a message for the superintendent with his secretary, she interrupted me as soon as I mentioned the physical assault on Mrs. R.
“All this has been thoroughly investigated, Mrs. Gaydos,” she assured me imperiously. “It has all been thoroughly investigated!”
The administration had “thoroughly investigated” the attack but didn’t know about it? Right …
Frustrated with the principal’s indifference, Mrs. R. went through “the correct channels” and filed a formal complaint with the HR director, who happened to be friends with the principal. The district made it very difficult for Mrs. R. to obtain the required form, but she persevered. The HR director later returned her complaint to her as “unfounded.”
I didn’t learn of this attack until after I had filed a suit against CUSD. When I did, I called another aide, who had been listed as a witness in Mrs. R.’s formal complaint.
“Oh, yes,” the aide told me before I had provided her with much context. “I know exactly which incident you’re talking about. The teacher was very, very angry. She was red in the face, and she ran at Mrs. R. and grabbed the book away from her.”
“Was there any physical contact?” I asked. “Did the momentum of her charge carry her over the table and cause her to hit Mrs. R.”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “My view was blocked by the teacher’s back. But Mrs. R. was very upset! She called the principal on the intercom about it.”
“Did anyone from the district ever ask you about this?” I continued. “Did the HR director ever speak to you about it?”
“Nobody from the district ever questioned you?”
This aide’s story contradicted the teacher’s version. Mr. HR director had not done due diligence. This teacher was obviously struggling with impulse control and anger management problems, and yet she was allowed to remain in the classroom and … to use seclusions and potentially lethal restraints on small children.
On another occasion, Mrs. R. was alone in the classroom with the teacher. The teacher became angry again, grabbed her purse, and threw it across the room. When Mrs. R. told me these stories, she always seemed sad and puzzled rather than angry or resentful.
“Why do you do these things?” she asked the teacher, genuinely bemused.
There was a long silence before the teacher sighed heavily.
“I have tenure,” she eventually responded. “Nobody can do anything to me. If they try, my union will protect me.”
Mrs. R. conscientiously documented the teacher’s behavior. She tried to work with the principal (as did many of us parents), and when that failed, she escalated her reporting to the HR director, the second-in-command at HR, the special education director, and the SELPA representative. Her concerns culminated in a meeting she called with the principal, teacher, HR director, union representatives, and others. At the start of the meeting, Mrs. R. drew a deep breath and bravely began to go through the list of abusive incidents she had documented. Almost immediately, the HR director terminated the meeting.
The next day, he called her at home.
“We have three lawyers working to fire you,” he announced.
The following day, he phoned her again. I have a copy of a transcript, written up by his secretary, of his portion of that conversation.
“I am moving forward with termination,” he tells her. “… You seem to be challenging her [the teacher] in her role. … You do not contact the parents and it is insubordination.”
In other words: sit down, shut up, and do what you’re told. And whatever you do, don’t tip off the parents!
The litany of accusations began. Mrs. R. was going to be fired because she was constantly “tardy.” Fortunately, when the teacher had first started accusing her of tardiness, Mrs. R. had protected herself by signing into the visitor’s log when she came in.
“Check the visitor’s log,” she told the HR director. “Show me where I was late.”
He moved on to a new accusation. Mrs. R. recalls being called into the district office and presented with a letter of resignation.
“You have five minutes to sign it!” the HR director snapped, standing over her and looking at his watch. “Sign it or we’ll send you before the board to be fired.”
“Oh, please send me before the board,” she replied. “I need to speak to the board members about this situation.” That was the end of that particular threat.
Mrs. R. repeatedly tried to talk to the HR director about the teacher’s mistreatment of her and the children. When she did so, he would shout her down.
“We’re not here to talk about that! We’re here to fire you! Do you understand?” he would yell.
When he could find nothing “fireable” that she had done, he gave her a “last chance agreement” – she would be transferred to work at a different school. Mrs. R. refused the transfer unless the teacher was fired. When it became clear that this would not happen, she finally resigned. By that stage, months of extreme stress had taken their toll on her physical health, and she felt depressed and discouraged.
My own experiences with the HR director support Mrs. R.’s impressions of him. A year after he was trying to fire Mrs. R., my child’s doctor would see the injuries that this teacher had inflicted on my daughter and would call the police. About ten days after the police came to our house and took a report, the HR director called me at home.
“We haven’t heard from the police, and we’re wondering if there really was a police report. Now — was there really a police report?”
His tone was aggressive and bantering. Taken aback, I provided him with the police case number and the name and phone number of one of the police officers who came to our house. He was undeterred.
“We don’t know if there really was a police report,” he carried on.
I encouraged him to call the police officer himself to verify the details, but he kept going.
“Now was there really a police report? We’re wondering if there really was a police report.” His tone became wheedling.
This went on and on. I had given him all the information I could. I eventually managed to get rid of him by providing him with my daughter’s doctor’s number and suggesting he verify with her that she had called the police. She phoned me later the same day, sounding puzzled.
“I just had a very strange conversation with the HR director,” she told me. “He phoned me to ask whether I’d called the police. I kept trying to explain my concerns about the abuse, but he refused to listen. He wasn’t interested in my perspective! He only wanted to know if I’d called the police.”
His response to the police report was to aggressively attack my credibility and to refuse to hear information from the doctor that was obviously pertinent to children’s safety. Similarly, he had refused to listen to Mrs. R.’s concerns. I think this man was a bully. And, yes, there was indeed a police report. It featured as one of our exhibits at trial.
I was blissfully unaware of this background at the time my daughter entered that classroom. However, my husband and I had quickly become concerned about the teacher’s officious and aggressive behavior. The first time our daughter came home bruised, my husband was in the classroom the next morning to speak to the teacher.
Unfortunately, Mrs. R. was placed on administrative leave just a short while after this incident. Not long thereafter, she ran into my husband in a store and warned him that the teacher was abusing children. She had tried to intervene, she told him, but the district had turned on her.
“When you came into the classroom that morning to talk to the teacher about the bruise, she lied to you,” explained Mrs. R. “She said she just held your daughter against a wall. She didn’t. Her face was livid with rage, and she threw your child face down on the floor and sat on her. Your daughter was pleading that she couldn’t breathe, and she was obviously in pain.”
After my husband got home, I tried to contact Mrs. R. but was unable to do so. Nevertheless, I met with the principal and teacher at the first opportunity and shared my concerns with them. I gave them a letter stating that my daughter could not be “restrained” again, but that my husband or I should be called immediately if there was a problem and that one of us would come in and help. The teacher erupted in apoplectic rage when she heard Mrs. R. had warned us of abuse. The principal seemed unconcerned and only became animated when she was trashing Mrs. R.
“Mrs. R. has no credibility! No credibility whatsoever!” she bellowed.
At the time, I foolishly believed her. A short while after this meeting, Mrs. R. was told she would be fired if she tried to talk to the parents again or came within a certain distance of the school.
When we later reconnected, Mrs. R. shared with me a copy of a complaint about her by a parent (whom I shall simply refer to as C to protect her privacy).
“But it’s not true,” she told me, sounding baffled. “I never said those things!”
I was puzzled too. By that point, I had concluded that C “had issues” and an odd relationship with the teacher, but would she flat out lie? Later, I would be left with no doubt that she would.
Months before our case went to trial, I had asked C, whose son was in the same classroom as my daughter, if she knew anything about how my child was hurt on her last day at CUSD. She told me she wasn’t at the school that afternoon. The assault on my daughter happened on a Tuesday, and her mother picked her son up from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At trial, however, we witnessed the miraculous apparition of C, patron saint of child abusers, who retroactively materialized in the school office at the time I collected my daughter from school that day. In her testimony, the teacher told the court at trial that C and I had watched as my daughter injured herself by running into a window. This was one of many different and often contradictory versions the district produced to try to explain how my child was hurt. C was to be called to the witness stand next, apparently to verify this.
Shortly before she was due to testify, C waited outside the courtroom (the court had briefly recessed) as a group of people milled around nearby.
“Did you manage to get hold of the CCTV footage from the school office from the time you collected your daughter?” someone asked within C’s hearing. “The one that will show exactly who was there and what happened?”
Now I don’t know if such footage existed, but one thing C and I both knew for sure: if there is such a tape out there somewhere — she’s not in it!
C, who was due to testify in just a few minutes, began looking extremely furtive. She appeared to be thinking hard, and, by the time she testified, she had not in fact been in the office with me watching my daughter careen into a window, as the teacher had claimed. She was actually … down a corridor? … somewhere? She wasn’t too sure where she was. She didn’t know where her son was either. Apparently, he was “around.” And she hadn’t seen my daughter run into a window – she had only heard her do so. This was quite clever as it gave her plausible deniability. If we produced the “CCTV footage,” she could simply claim she was mistaken and must have heard something else.
“Did she cry when she bumped her head?” our lawyer asked.
Now C was stuck and had to commit one way or the other. Of course, my daughter would have cried if this were true, and the putative CCTV footage would have shown that, but C obviously didn’t trust the teacher’s account any more than I did. She panicked as her eyes writhed wildly in her head.
“Real tears or crocodile tears?” she finally burst out. “Real tears or crocodile tears?”
“Well, did she cry?” our lawyer asked again.
More panicking and eye writhing.
“Real tears or crocodile tears?” repeated C.
Her response didn’t make any sense, particularly as minutes earlier, she had clasped her chest and lachrymosely explained that “as a mother, you just know” the sound of a child hitting its head. Why had her tender sympathies for my daughter suddenly evaporated? I noticed that both the teacher and the district’s lawyer were looking extremely puzzled. C had gone off-script.
C also claimed, under oath, that she had stayed on at the school until I collected my daughter, about half an hour after school closed because she was chatting with the summer school principal. However, the summer school principal had earlier, in her testimony, made it very clear that she had not seen C that afternoon.
The jurors dismissed C’s testimony. “She wasn’t running on a full tank,” is how one of them put it. I do not doubt at all that the teacher manipulated poor, confused C to lie to the principal about Mrs. R., just as she (and possibly others) manipulated C to lie under oath at trial.
It became increasingly clear throughout our case that CUSD at the time was run by a small cabal of close friends who felt they had absolute power and were accountable to nobody. This in-group was completely ruthless in defending itself and had no scruples about blaming its victims. No lie was too great in their bad faith efforts to defend child abuse. If they all circled the wagons, they believed, they would be untouchable. This was the group of cronies Mrs. R. had to deal with.
Nevertheless, she persisted. She never gave up trying to protect the children, even when she faced unscrupulous retaliation. Her conclusions about the teacher’s behavior were in line with those held by many parents and several experts, including my daughter’s doctor, two therapists who witnessed and reported psychological abuse in the teacher’s classroom, and our expert witness Dr. Paul Smith, who worked for the California Department of Education and helped to pass some of the laws that CUSD violated.
I remain hopeful that a resolution for Mrs. R. will eventually be found.