NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey school district has fired at least two educators for verbally abusing autistic children after a father sent his 10-year-old autistic son to school wearing a hidden microphone upon suspecting he was being mistreated by staff.
The audio recordings, made public in a 17-minute video later posted on YouTube, capture educators speaking in harsh tones to the autistic children, including one in which a woman tells the young boy what sounds like “You are a bastard.”
“That night my life changed forever,” father Stuart Chaifetz said of the first time he heard the recording. “What I heard on that audio was so disgusting, so vile.”
Chaifetz said in the video he had become perplexed by reports his son, Akian, was being accused of hitting teachers and aides and knocking over chairs at Horace Mann Elementary School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
“None of it made sense because he’d never been violent,” Chaifetz said.
After what he described as six months of unproductive meetings with school staff, he sent his son to school wearing a hidden microphone on February 17, resulting in about six hours of audio of an apparently typical day in which a teacher and aides can be heard joking about a hangover one of them has and being harsh and unsympathetic to students.
All the children in Akian’s class have autism or other learning difficulties, making it difficult for them to communicate with other people, Chaifetz said. Staff in the class took advantage of that, he said, by talking about inappropriate subjects, including their drinking habits and their husbands, in earshot of the children.
“I had a bottle of wine with my girlfriend last night,” a female member of staff can be heard saying on the recording, before going on to tell a colleague that she spent the morning “heaving.”
A staff member tells Akian, who Chaifetz says sometimes talks softly to himself because of his autism, to “shut your mouth” on more than one occasion.
Akian, whose parents live apart, can later be heard crying after he asks whether he may see his father after he visits his mother for the weekend, to which a staff member replies “No!”
Chaifetz says he presented the school with his audio recording in February. He uploaded his YouTube video, which contains excerpts from the recording, on Friday. It has since been viewed more than 1.4 million times.
“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,” Maureen Reusche, superintendent of the Cherry Hill School District, told a board of education meeting on Tuesday, according to a statement on the district’s website.
She was legally prevented from giving further details about who was fired, she said.
Chaifetz says in the video that some of the staff involved were merely transferred to another district, not fired. “You called my son a bastard. You made him cry. You heard crying innocently and he’s a bastard for that?”
He says he wants the teachers involved to make a public apology to his son and resign.
“It’s about dignity,” he said. “This is to reclaim my son’s dignity.”
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Sandra Maler