A Cherry Hill father who says his autistic son was tormented for at least six months by public-school special education teachers and support staff has taken his case viral with damning, covertly gathered audio of the classroom in which he says his son was abused.
In a 17-minute video, titled "Teacher/Bully: How My Son Was Humiliated and Tormented by his Teacher and Aide," Stuart Chaifetz replays portions of audio he attributes to "Kelly" and "Jodi," whom he says are his son Akian's former special education and resource teachers.
The video went viral last week, creating quite a media frenzy locally and across the country, and even resulted in a North Jersey man filing suit against the Cherry Hill school district on Akian's behalf.
The voices in the recording tell 10-year-old Akian that he is "such a bastard," order him to "shut [his] mouth," and antagonize him by telling him "no" when he asks for reassurances that he will see his father soon.
Akian, Stuart Chaifetz says, is mostly non-communicative—as are his special-needs cohorts, in front of whom these remarks allegedly were made—but mostly sweet-tempered. On the tape, the boy can be heard responding by alternately whimpering like a kicked dog and lashing out at his caretakers.
When the notes describing Akian's bad behavior kept coming home, Stuart Chaifetz says he worked with a behavioral specialist and an IEP team to try to recreate a situation in which Akian was triggered into violence. They couldn't, so Stuart Chaifetz took matters into his own hands.
"On the morning of Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, I wired my son and sent him to school," Stuart Chaifetz writes on his website Teacher/Bully. "That night, when I listened to the audio, my life changed forever."
Chaifetz's complaints mention "Jodi" and "Kelly" as being teachers in the room with his son. The six-and-a-half hours of audio he claims to have gathered (and submitted to school officials) paints a picture of employees who discussed extensively personal details of their lives at length and in front of their charges. Chaifetz alleges that they did this because they were secure in the knowledge that none of the students in the classroom would be able to tell anyone about it.
(A March 26 report from the Interactive Autism Network and Johns Hopkins University researchers indicates preliminarily that more than 60 percent of all American children with autism spectrum disorders have been victims of bullying, with 47 percent of fifth-grade-aged students having had such experiences. The results of the studies have yet to be peer-reviewed.)
A Google cached version of the faculty list for Horace Mann Elementary School shows two names, Jodi Sgouros and Kelly Altenburg, that are no longer on its current directory; it is unknown for certain whether these are the women mentioned in Chaifetz's claims. The cached directory identifies Sgouros as an educational assistant and Altenburg as a special education teacher.
According to Altenburg's LinkedIn public profile, she is a "teacher/consultant at Cherry Hill Public Schools;" on his blog, Chaifetz says that although "Jodi" was fired, "Kelly...still works in the school district...an outrage I am not willing to allow to pass in silence."
On his video and his website, Chaifetz pleads for a formal explanation as to why some of the parties involved are still employed within the district. Altenburg has since been placed on paid leave as the district investigates the claims against her.
"To this end, I seek a full and public apology from all those adults who were in my son’s class for what they did to him," he says on his site. "It is also far past time that these issues are allowed to be hidden from public view.
"If a teacher bullies a child, especially one with special needs, they need to be immediately fired."
On Friday, Altenburg's attorney held a press conference in which he asserted his client was not in her classroom when the worst of the comments were directed at Akian. Click here to watch the video.
Update, 8 p.m., April 24: Cherry Hill Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Reusche released the following statement on the district's website:
"In February, upon receiving a copy of an audio recording, the district undertook a thorough and rigorous investigation and, as we have previously noted, responded swiftly and appropriately. Although this is a personnel matter and there are specifics that I cannot legally address publicly, I want to assure our parents that 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."
Update, 11:03 a.m., April 24: An earlier version of this article considered whether the aide captured on Stuart Chaifetz's audio recording may have been a Cherry Hill Public Schools long-term substitute also named Jodi; Chaifetz has confirmed to Collingswood Patch that this is not the person captured on his recording. We apologize for the error.
Chaifetz also confirmed that although Akian had the same teacher for more than a year, his son's reported behavioral concerns have only been ongoing since September 2011.