Click photo to enlarge
Caneel Carlin, currently of Concord, is photographed as she talks about her case in the law offices of Hinton, Alfert & Kahn LLP in Walnut Creek, Calif. on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. On Jan. 11, the Brentwood Union School District agreed to a $950,000 settlement to the Carlin family whose special needs child was abused by a Loma Vista Elementary School special needs teacher, Dina Holder, in 2010. (Dan Honda/Staff)

As the parent of special-needs children, I have been shocked by recent local media reports of such children being abused by the very teachers we have entrusted to help them learn to the best of their ability and become productive members of society.

To be sure, the abuse of any child by an adult is one of the most cowardly acts imaginable. However, such crimes are even more disgusting when perpetrated against children who have an impaired ability to understand and report them to responsible adults who may be able to help.

So what can parents do to reduce the possibility of such crimes being perpetrated on our children? I know that some will propose new laws. However, I believe that we have adequate laws against such behavior right now, although I would not object to enhancing the current penalties for such crimes.

But I think the only real solution is for parents to become very involved in our kids' classes and learn as much as possible about what goes on in those classes. There are many ways to do this.

One of the best ways is to volunteer to help out at the school. Because of the schools' dire financial condition, parent volunteers are becoming indispensable, so it is often very easy to integrate ourselves into the school environment and monitor potential problem teachers.

Another great way to gather information is to make friends with the special education aides at the school and regularly engage in friendly "small talk" with them. You will be surprised by what you learn from such seemingly inconsequential conversations.


Advertisement

For example, the school aides involved in the recent child abuse case at Loma Vista Elementary School in Brentwood were apparently very aware of the teacher's inappropriate treatment of the special-needs kids in her class.

The next question is what should parents do if they learn of suspected abuse?

In the Loma Vista case, it appears that the principal and other teachers were very aware of the problem teacher's highly inappropriate behavior, but they failed to follow current law that requires prompt reporting of such situations to Child Protective Services. That is a clear failure of leadership by a principal who seems to have had no appreciation of her very serious reporting responsibilities under the law.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that she failed to instruct school employees under her control regarding their legal responsibilities. Such failures are of course inexcusable when any child is harmed as a result, but they are particularly disturbing when the affected children are already struggling to overcome learning disabilities that make communication difficult or impossible.

So I believe that if parents learn of any suspected abuse they should immediately report it to Child Protective Services themselves and then actively follow up with the authorities to be sure that a thorough investigation is conducted.

Parents of special-needs kids may also want to demand an immediate individual educational program (IEP) meeting seeking a different classroom placement. And, in extreme situations, parents may have to pull their kids out of school pending satisfactory resolution of the situation.

The most important thing for parents to remember is that they are ultimately the ones responsible for their child's safety, and they cannot and should not delay taking aggressive action when that safety is placed in peril by criminal teachers and incompetent administrators.

Kim Karelis is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, where he specializes in special education law, attorney fee dispute matters and insurance coverage litigation. He has two special-needs children in elementary school.