SC law requires no license, training for special needs aides

Two special education teachers' assistants accused of abuse didn't have licenses for the job and it's allowed per state law.
Published: Aug. 10, 2023 at 6:28 PM EDT
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DORCHESTER COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Two special education teachers’ assistants accused of abuse didn’t have licenses for the job and it’s allowed per state law.

Last May, police arrested former aides for Dorchester District Two after the alleged abuse of an autistic and deaf child was caught on school surveillance cameras.

Emily Westermann is charged with third-degree assault and battery. Patricia Fuller is charged with unlawful conduct towards a child, a felony.

That child was Kortney Ladon’s 11-year-old son, Daquan.

Kortney Ladson sits with her 11-year-old son, Daquan.
Kortney Ladson sits with her 11-year-old son, Daquan.(live 5)

DD2 denied a Freedom of Information Act request to view the videos citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Ladson was able to view the videos herself. In one she says, Westermann continues to push her child down onto a bean bag chair after he had gotten frustrated and hit his hand on a table. She says in another taken on another day, she can see Fuller push her child too.

Fuller was one of the educators she thought she could trust.

“She’s constantly going back to him grabbing, reaching for his neck and shoving him in his face,” Ladson said.

She also recounts that there were other adults present in the room at the time of the incidents that did not interfere.

She says watching the videos was difficult for her.

“As a parent you want to protect your child,” she said.

Fuller’s attorney, Glenn Justis, denies that an assault took place providing a statement that reads in part:

“I have personally reviewed the evidence to include the surveillance video from the alleged incident.  It is clear in the video that my client was intervening to stop the child from assaulting several of the other children in the classroom.  Also in the video are two other adults who stood by and failed to do anything.  Why they were not charged for not reporting is a question I would like answered as they are mandatory reporters.  My client and I are looking forward to the case going to trial so that the facts will come out and exonerate my client.”

DD2 did not respond to a request for comment regarding what, if any, consequences the individuals present in the classroom at the time of the incidents have faced.

The criminal charges are only part of the story.

Though Westermann wrote in her application that she loves kids and that “Down syndrome and special needs” was her calling, she had no license to work with special needs students. It’s the same for Fuller, who had experience in the field and was noted to be “highly respected by parents, teachers, administrators, and students.”

No licenses are required for teacher’s assistants, just 60 hours of educational credits or a passing grade on a paraprofessional test, according to the South Carolina Department of Education,

Unlike teachers, their training qualifications are set by the districts and not the state.

“That’s disturbing,” Ladson said. “You should want someone to know how to actually go in the classroom and actually be able to handle kids with special needs.”

Both employees signed a code of conduct that stated “[t]he use of physical force in student management is prohibited.”

In March, it’s noted that Westermann had been talked to by administrators after she “moved a child by putting her hand on her back and nudging her forward.” Westermann told them that she “felt it was necessary” to prevent the child who was flailing from hitting other students.

It’s noted that this “redirection” is not approved by DD2 and Westermann “took ownership” of her choice to do so.

Autistic Children more susceptible to abuse

“This can be a very challenging job to have,” Wendy Fornier said. “I’m very surprised that the staff is not given the training and the support that they need in order to do a good job of supporting our kids.”

Fornier is the president of the National Autism Association.

Autistic children are more susceptible to abuse than their peers, according to research.

“A lot of them have extreme difficulty in communicating their needs,” she said. “The frustration that comes along with that is really difficult to bear.”

She says training on identifying those frustrations early on is crucial to working with these students successfully, and it has to be highly individualized due to the unique nature of the disorder that presents itself in different people.

“If you have no training in this, you’re just going to look at a kid who is you know, slowly ramping up and all of a sudden it’s a meltdown mode that is out of control and you are left thinking what am I supposed to do right now?” Fournier said.

Districts set training requirements

Last November, parents of another non-verbal autistic child who attended Moultrie Middle School claimed that Charleston County School District staff unlawfully restrained their child for years in a lawsuit.

Maria Audrey is one of the accused staff members who is a current teacher’s assistant. Tyler Bealmear, a former teacher, is also named in the lawsuit. He no longer works for the district.

It’s unclear if any staff have faced consequences in relation to the allegations.

The school district has no written policy on training but does require training as part of the job description for teacher assistants.

“We do onboarding activities and professional development for special education paraprofessionals,” Beverly Holt-Pilkey, Executive Director of the Department of Exceptional Children.

Holt-Pilkey says that training can include a variety of things, depending on the role, including strategies for implementing behavior intervention plans with teachers and crisis prevention.

It’s not clear how much time paraprofessionals within the district spend in training.

DD2 spokesman Matt Kenwright denied a request for an interview regarding Ladson’s son, citing pending litigation and personnel matters that limited “the information they could provide” but did provide a short statement:

Student and staff safety is the top priority of Dorchester School District Two, and we will do everything we can to ensure we continue to provide a safe, welcoming environment for all students and staff.

Pending litigation and personnel matters limit the information we can provide. This troubling incident underscores why we provide robust, multi-tiered training to all staff during onboarding and throughout the year. Additionally, Special Services staff are specifically trained to de-escalate behaviors, communicate effectively, maintain classroom control in a safe and productive manner, build relationships, and protect student and staff safety using state- and district-approved practices.

When asked they would not discuss further what was part of that “robust” training.

“Training needs to be ongoing and specific to individual children based on their needs,” attorney Russell Hilton stated.

Hilton represents Westermann.

Berkeley County School District did not respond to a request for information regarding training policies.