By Elena Croy
Marking a one-year anniversary can be reason for a huge celebration or the first time you really pause to reflect on the life you led a year ago compared with the one you lead today.
A year has passed since our baby girl was abused in her public school classroom. We talk a lot about the acute physical incident, although we’ve been learning over time that there was emotional abuse and neglect inflicted on our daughter and a few of her classmates over a period of months, the details of which our district will not fully disclose. This has left our family and others to piece together our non-verbal children’s stories so that they can heal and we can look toward a brighter future.
I will share our plan to forge ahead—a feat so large that we couldn’t possibly go it alone—at a later date, but for now, just the facts…
On December 7, 2020, my then four-year-old’s special education preschool teacher wrapped my daughter’s ankles in packing tape to secure her shoes to her legs. On December 14, we formally reported her to the school. Before I tell you what transpired that week, let’s rewind to what led up to the taping.
My daughter, Hope, has Down syndrome and has attended our town’s lauded public preschool since January 2019. When she started at age 3, she was placed in what was at the time the onlyABA classroom in the building. Although this didn’t feel right to me and I’d heard a lot about 1:1 aides, or paraprofessionals, the room was bright and cheery, the teacher was an absolute sweetheart, and our team explained to me that a room with a lower student-to-teacher ratio was less restrictive than a more inclusive classroom with a 1:1 aide. (I would come to learn two years later that our child study team (CST) recommended the more inclusive classroom with a 1:1, was denied likely for budget considerations, and that the ABA classroom was actually more restrictive.)
Following months of pandemic remote school, our district reopened in September 2020 with 5 day/week in-person learning for nearly 800 students with IEPs while the general education students opened with an alternating-day hybrid model. And to my extreme relief, Hope transitioned out of the ABA classroom to a more appropriate learning environment, albeit still a self-contained class, with a teacher we had casually come to know and admire. Hope’s last year of preschool was going to be amazing, even amid the pandemic. I knew we’d moved to this town for a reason.
But the fall of 2020 didn’t play out how I thought it would. Ourschool adjusted normal dismissal time back to 12:45pm every day, but because the children weren’t eating lunch due to COVID safety restrictions, I picked Hope up early at 12:00pm, which also afforded me the opportunity for a privateconversation with her teacher every single day. As weeks went on, the enthusiasm this teacher had shown over welcoming Hope to her classroom was diminishing, replaced with comments of frustration aimed toward both Hope and a few of her classmates. On some days at pickup I would just scoop Hope up into my arms, afraid to ask if it had been a good day or not, and hustled to the car before anyone could see the tears welling in my eyes.
What was I doing wrong? Was this all because we sheltered through spring and summer? Did I fail Hope at home? Was she becoming some maladjusted child with behaviors we inadvertently let slide?
A lot of tension was building around Hope taking her shoes offin her classroom. One day when I came to pick her up, I overheard through open classroom windows the teacher yelling at Hope from across the room to put her shoes on. Before I was in view, I saw a little classmate of hers toddle over and, looking between the teacher and Hope, scramble to try to help her put her shoes back on, which neither this little girl nor Hope were able to do. When I came into sight, the teacher’s tone changed to one that was playful and friendly, sharing that mommy had arrived and it was time to go. I would say this was probably the first time an alarm bell really started to go off in my head. I hit snooze.
The week after Thanksgiving, the teacher told me that if Hope didn’t stop taking her shoes off that she would duct tape them to her feet. I’m pretty sure I laughed when she told me this, and I’m pretty sure my laugh blew wide open the door the teacher sought to pass through to finally get my daughter under control.
On Monday, December 7, 2020, the day after her backyard Frozen birthday party, our world was turned upside down. The teacher handed Hope over at pickup that day with clear packing tape wrapped around each of her ankles. I said, “You actuallydid it?” to which the teacher responded, “Oh yeah, I did it!” To defuse the situation I asked if Hope found it funny, and the teacher proudly stated that Hope did not find it funny. She then held up her two hands to show my daughter’s stumbling feet and in an illustratively stumbling tone said, “She. Couldn’t. Walk.” I held Hope so tight.
When we got to the car I snapped a quick photo of her feet. I’d meant to send it to my husband, but Hope was insisting I put on the Frozen II soundtrack and I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. When we got home, my husband lifted her out of the car. I told him to look at her feet and he did. Then he looked back at me and neither of us uttered a sound.
Hope had been withholding throughout her entire school day—now I know as a response to a stressful environment—so the first thing we’d do when she got home was go straight to the potty. I will never forget Hope’s screams from behind the bathroom door as her daddy unwound the packing tape from her ankles. Hope is hypersensitive to sounds, but there was no way to get her shoes off without first removing the tape, and we couldn’t use scissors because she was thrashing so much and it would have been dangerous, so here she was reliving the taping experience again but this time worse, at home.
That afternoon the teacher emailed me to ask what Hope’s favorite color is, as she was preparing for her classroom birthday celebration. I responded and added that today was a trauma that can’t happen again. I told her I have no answers as to why Hope is taking her shoes off but if it’s behavioral, then let’s consult with the behaviorist, and maybe it would be worthwhile to talk with her physical therapist to see if something is going on with her orthotics. The teacher didn’t respond to the email.
I have made some truly beautiful friends in our Down syndrome community over the years. Two of these friends are special education teachers and their context for what had happened to Hope was much richer than mine. They taught me about restraint and seclusion, including the parameters and mandated training involved. Neither of them hesitated to call it abuse. Neither of them found any part of the story redeemable. Something had gone extremely wrong, and our school district had an established vocabulary to describe it, which I was learning all for the first time.
Hope was abused. Hope was mechanically restrained. My Hope, whose life I’ve protected countless times since before she was born, her humanity now again up for some sort of debate.
So yes, an entire week passed between my daughter being taped by her teacher at school and our reporting the situation. But it was more than just a week that passed. Seven anxiety-ridden days and seven sleepless nights. Two in-person days of schooldue to a potential COVID exposure. Countless hours on the phone and a very deep internet rabbit hole. Daily prayers for guidance. Emotional paralysis until the night we spoke with our case manager when the audible words over what a trusted teacher did to our daughter shattered my entire body, leaving a pile of waste around my pounding heart.
Our first report came on Sunday night, December 13, to our case manager. I had emailed her that I was keeping Hope home for her own safety the next day and that a previously scheduled meeting I had requested to advocate for 1:1 support in the classroom would have to be revised to omit the teacher. This meeting came the next day, December 14, and by the end of that afternoon the district had put the teacher on an administrative leave, the special programs supervisor had reported institutional abuse to the state, and we’d made the decision to return Hope to the ABA classroom where we knew and trusted the teacher and her staff.
A few weeks later I would learn that the state reported back to our district that we did not meet a minimum threshold for investigation. And on Friday, January 8, 2021, I would learn via the upcoming BOE agenda that the teacher had been reinstated to her classroom on Monday, January 4. When I inquired about restraint and seclusion training/reporting and asked questions about the classroom, I was met with a reply that had very clearly been heavily influenced by, if not actually written by, our district lawyer. And so we hired our own lawyer who asked whether the district was running a Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) investigation. I’d never heard of this before, and the district went to work, ultimately finding the teacher to have physically bullied our daughter in a “demeaning incident” that “caused actual harm.” I thought for sure this would be the tool our district could use to remove the teacher from her classroom and to keep the young, vulnerable students safe from further trauma, but nothing changed and the teacher announced her retirement for June 2021. I told them that if they did not tell the other classroom families what had happened that we would, which is when our superintendent suggested we might feel embarrassed if we shared our story and that they would send out a notification letter by the end of the week. The letter was cryptic and purposely misleading, stating that an incident had occurred and was since resolved, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Weeks passed and still no changes. We requested a hearing before the Board of Education but the superintendent denied us. I emailed a letter to the entire BOE and district administration on April 5, 2021, but I didn’t receive a reply. I sent the letter via certified mail later that week and to this day have heard nothing back. I filed a complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, completed my intake at the end of May, and by the time we were assigned an investigator the teacher had officially retired and I was told that there was nothing they could do at this point.
I refuse to let Hope’s victimization stigmatize our family. I stayed quiet for so long in hopes that the district would do the right thing, but instead they have been hell bent on gaslighting our family. I’m afraid they chose the wrong family.
Hope’s kindergarten placement, which I vehemently disagreed with, included 0% inclusion, and knowing how neglected she’d been all year long, I advocated for an extra year of preschool, which we got. But a few days before the start of the 2021-2022 school year I learned that my daughter’s new teacher was assigned to the same physical classroom where my daughter had been traumatized and abused, which would mean a return to her site of trauma without any mental health support. When I refused to send her in without a plan, I was met with zero negotiation and a threat from our special programs office to send her to school or be reported to the state. Our special programs office tried to assure me that my own daughter wouldn’t remember her abuse, to which I told them they were grossly undermining her intelligence.
A week after she returned to the classroom finally with mutually compromised (MEDIOCRE) mental health plan, I noticed at morning drop off that she didn’t want to enter the classroom and an aide was pulling her into the room by both wrists. Our special programs office insisted she was “simply guided”—I demanded the school never again question my threshold for the physical manipulation of my daughter’s body at school.
The more I share, the more I hear, and what I hear is sad and scary. Our struggles are universal, coming and going when we least expect them. I am grateful for this platform and for all of you. On November 1 of this year I’d had enough of the silence and spoke during the public comment period of our Board of Education meeting (you can listen to Elena’s entire speech here:
The response I got two days later from our special programs office was that they’ve shared all they can, everything else is confidential, and I need to find a way to move forward.
I look forward to sharing with you the journey to forgiving the teacher for abusing my precious daughter and the steps we are taking to shape a safer future for all of our children, not just Hope.