Monday, March 10, 2008

Suit: District Ignored Abuse of Special Ed Kids

Philadelphia Daily News 215-854-5949

Special-education students at Martha Washington Elementary School this fall allegedly were forced by their teacher to fistfight in the middle of the classroom. They allegedly were forced to stand with their hands raised in the air for two hours, missing lunch.

Their teacher at the West Philadelphia school also verbally abused the students, calling one "black, crispy and ashy," and another "turtle," who, because of mental and physical disabilities, moved and spoke slowly, according to allegations made in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court. The defendants are the School District of Philadelphia and Community Council for Mental Health and Mental Retardation, Inc., a nonprofit company the district employs to provide care for special-needs children.

In the lawsuit, Perlyn Severe-Clarke, 36, a clinical therapist, and Tracy Brice, 39, an associate counselor, allege that they were fired by Community Council in December after complaining to a supervisor about the alleged ongoing abusive behavior and language exhibited by the classroom teacher, who also worked for the company.

The terminations came less than a week after Brice used her cell-phone camera to record one of the teacher's instigated fights, the lawsuit claims.

"I believe that the conduct on the teacher's part was disturbing to them," Jill Fisher, the plaintiffs' attorney, said yesterday. "They reported it to their superiors on several different occasions . . . and they were rewarded for their efforts by being fired."

The plaintiffs are seeking reinstatement, back pay and unspecified monetary and punitive damages, said Fisher, of the Philadelphia firm of Zarwin, Baum, DeVito, Kaplan, Schaer and Toddy, P.C.

Also named in the lawsuit are employees of Community Council and the school district, including interim Chief Executive Officer Tom Brady and the principal of Martha Washington Elementary, Carolyn Jackson.

Jackson yesterday did not return a Daily News phone call to her school, on 44th Street near Lancaster Avenue.

"Because this is a pending legal matter the district is unable to comment at this time," said Fernando Gallard, the district's chief spokesman.

Earl Bradford, executive director of Community Council, at 49th Street and Wyalusing Avenue, declined to comment, but did refute the basis of the lawsuit.

"The allegation is outrageous, and it will be appropriately adjudicated in a court of law," he said by phone yesterday.

"It's in litigation. We have insurance and a lawyer has been assigned to it," Bradford added.

Fisher said that the defendants violated the state's Whistleblower Law by terminating her clients after they made a good-faith report of suspected child abuse in accordance with the state's Child Protective Services Law.

When they were terminated - Brice on Dec. 17 and Severe-Clarke on Dec. 18 - a Community Council supervisor said it had been due to tardiness, though neither had received notices for being tardy before. The company supervisor read both plaintiffs a letter, reportedly from Principal Jackson, telling them that they were no longer wanted at the school.

Both were also told by the supervisor that Community Council was not about to lose its contract with the district because of them, said Fisher, who herself worked as a special-education teacher for the district in the 1980s.

Severe-Clarke began working for the company in Jan. 2006 and Brice was hired in May 2007. At the time of their firing, they worked in the same classroom with the teacher named in the lawsuit, serving 12 children aged 9 to 13.

"Having been a special-education teacher, I just was shocked and appalled at what I was hearing and at the response of the company to rush and fire my clients when they were just doing their jobs," Fisher said.

"The biggest question is, are there other acts of abuse or mistreatment or neglect by staff members that are being now - or have been in the past - covered up? The concern for the school children's safety and well being is the reason for my clients blowing the whistle," she said.

"But can the same be said for the school district and the private company? Who, or what, were they concerned about? Those questions have to be answered," the lawyer added.

District spokesman Gallard could not say how much Community Council is being paid.

The company has 120 employees in 40 district classrooms providing emotional-support services to students with a range of disabilities, including serious emotional disturbances, Gallard said. *

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