The Atlantic Journal-Constitution, September 1, 1999

Aide paddled autistic child, now drives his bus
By Richard Whitt

Cuthbert -- A Clay County school board member, suspended as a teacher's aide for hitting an autistic student, landed in a school maintenance job without a pay cut, and continues to drive the school bus that transports the same child he admitted hitting.

Parents of special education students at Randolph-Clay High School and child advocates are outraged over what they claim is mistreatment of children with disabilities, mostly involving school board member Willie Mason.

Although Mason admitted hitting the autistic student in January, he remained in the classroom throughout the year.

It wasn't until last month, when an attorney for the boy's family wrote a letter complaining to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, that any action was taken.

On Aug. 20, Mason's license was suspended for 90 days for chasing 14-year-old Kevin Littleton around a classroom and hitting him with a paddle for drinking from Mason's cup.

Parents believe Mason is being protected by an "old boy network."

They're also convinced that this wasn't an isolated incident.

Special education students at Randolph-Clay are forced to endure abuses both in the classroom and on the school bus, which takes them 20 miles from Fort Gaines to the school in Cuthbert, parents say.

They have asked state and federal officials to investigate the school's special education program, which serves students in both Clay and Randolph counties in southwest Georgia. And, after months of delays, they are getting attention.

After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began making inquiries last week, school officials offered to remove Mason as special education bus driver and decided he would not return to the classroom when his 90-day suspension ends. He was still driving the bus this week.

Randolph District Attorney Charles Ferguson said he is considering criminal charges against Mason for hitting Kevin.

Although the allegations against Mason have been widely known in both counties since last winter, Ferguson said he only recently received information from Kevin's mother, Zera Littleton, about the incident and has not had time to investigate fully.

Today a federally funded child advocacy agency will begin an investigation into allegations made by parents and others about abuses at the school.

"If this abuse is going on, we need to get to the bottom of it and get it stopped," said Linda Shepherd, executive director of Parents Educating Parents and Professionals, a nonprofit advocacy agency.

Shepherd said five parents have reported incidents of abuse and several others have been mistreated but are reluctant to come forward.

One of the parents who have stepped forward is Fort Gaines resident Ellen Harris, whose 5-year-old child has a learning disability. Among reported abuses, she said, were instances of students being hit with a stick, smacked in the face or forced to stand outside in 100-plus degree temperatures. At least one involved a teacher other than Mason.

"These children need love and understanding. Why should they have to go from a loving environment at home into a hostile environment?" said Harris.

Zera Littleton said Kevin, who doesn't speak, has been traumatized by the incident. She said she doesn't understand why it took school officials seven months to make a commitment to remove Mason from the classroom and special education bus.

Randolph County school officials acknowledge the incident involving Kevin, but they dispute some details and insist that Mason, who earns about $20,000 annually, is a good employee. Mason has been in the classroom some 15 years, and this is the first documented incident of improper behavior, they said.

"That was something we don't want to happen," Randolph-Clay Principal Lee W. Byrd said last week in an interview with the Journal-Constitution. "Yes, the person (Mason) admits attacking the kid with a paddle. It was reported immediately. I took appropriate action. The PSC came and took action. The person can't be in the classroom for 90 days. But it doesn't take a paraprofessional license to drive a school bus."

Byrd disputes allegations that Mason viciously attacked Kevin. But former teacher's aide Stephanie Walton, who was in the classroom at the time, said Mason chased Kevin around the classroom and hit him hard on the left thigh with a paddle.

Walton said she witnessed another incident involving Kevin and Mason about a year ago. "I had just returned from lunch and when I came back into the room Mason had his arm around Kevin's head. He was actually scuffling with this child. They turned over a table. I said, 'You've got to stop.' Kevin was crying," she said.

Walton said she reported the incident, but nothing was done.

Another teacher's aide, Janice Deal, also witnessed the paddling incident. She declined to be interviewed for this article, but her official statement to state investigators confirmed the incident.

Deal said she screamed at Mason to stop hitting Kevin. "He came toward me stating I'd better not ever tell him what to do again. I was very upset and left the room," Deal said.

Mason, who was not available for an interview for this article, acknowledged hitting Kevin in a statement to a PSC investigator but said he was not angry.

"I was just trying to teach him not to drink out of anyone's cup. I wasn't mad when I popped him. I was just trying to get his attention," Mason's statement said.

Randolph County Board of Education Chairman Henry Cook, whose board is responsible for operating the school, said the allegations raised by Harris and others have no merit. "Mrs. Harris is just shooting in the breeze. I would challenge anyone to come and look at our system.

"To put this in a nutshell, do you think Randolph County or any system would put itself in that kind of legal jeopardy? The allegation that certain people are receiving special treatment is not correct," Cook said.

"We're not going to cover up for anyone."

Mason violated specific school board policy and possibly state law in striking Kevin. But the school board, the state PSC and the Department of Family and Children Services all investigated and took appropriate action, Cook said.

"Was he wrong? Clearly he was wrong. Now they're saying there is a pattern. That's a serious allegation for us," said Cook.

Another Fort Gaines mother, Inger McPherson, said her 11-year old son, Charlie, who also has a learning disability, was slammed against a wall by another special education teacher and made to stand outside in 100-degree temperatures for asking for a drink of water.

Zera Littleton, a retired Randolph County schoolteacher, said her son is afraid of Mason and no longer wants to ride the school bus.

"I have to drive him to school," said Littleton.

"I'm hoping something can be done to keep him (Mason) out of the classroom. He does not need to be around children," she said.

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