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Megan Evans and her husband Larry Evans of Antioch, both look down as they describe the abuse their son Malik, 6, who is autistic suffered from the hands of a special education teacher at his Antioch school last year, at their attorneys office in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, April 2, 2013. The couple are suing the Antioch school district and some employes over abuse at the hands of a special education teacher. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff)

ANTIOCH -- With the filing of a federal lawsuit Wednesday, a horrific child abuse scandal burst into public view in the Antioch school district, involving three autistic students who allegedly were slapped, pinched and verbally abused by a teacher -- and school officials who failed to report the accusations to police as the law requires.

The incidents, which bear a sad similarity to others that have come to light around the Bay Area in recent months, have already forced the accused teacher's resignation and compelled a criminal investigation into the abuse claims. And now the district's leadership stands accused by the students' parents of creating a hostile environment that violated the autistic children's civil rights.

Documents show the Antioch district's own investigation of the concerns about teacher Theresa Allen-Caulboy ramped up only after this newspaper first reported on a similar abuse situation in Brentwood, where a convicted child abuser was allowed to continue teaching special needs students. A classroom aide to Allen-Caulboy cited the newspaper report as her impetus for reporting the abuse allegations.

But even then, internal district documents suggest, Antioch district officials tried to keep the matter under wraps, with one saying in an email he dissuaded a parent from going to police or the newspaper with her concerns about Allen-Caulboy.

"It's the same story that happened in Brentwood," said attorney Peter Alfert, who represents the three families suing the district. "They cover up until they can't cover up any more."

Allegations against Allen-Caulboy, an autism instructor at Mno Grant Elementary School, include backhand-slapping a nonverbal autistic boy more than once, picking that boy's nose and forcing him to eat it, driving her knee into his back as she restrained him on the ground, pinching another child's nipples and verbally abusing her students, according to the lawsuit and internal district documents provided by the parents' attorneys to this newspaper.

The lawsuit lays blame on the district, Allen-Caulboy, Principal Michael Green, special education Director David Wax, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Keith Rogenski and special education Coordinator Kai Montgomery. The parents also have filed state claims with the district.

Allen-Caulboy, 55, of Brentwood, was placed on administrative leave Jan. 18; she resigned Feb. 13, according to letters to her from the district. She had been teaching in Grant's Special Day Class since August 2011.

Malik Evans, 5.    (Courtesy of the Evans family)
Malik Evans, 5. (Courtesy of the Evans family) ( mdufrene )

In an interview this week, Antioch police said they presented an abuse case to the District Attorney's Office on March 26 against Allen-Caulboy involving a student, but no charges have been filed as the case remains under review. Even though state law requires school employees to report any suspicion of child abuse to authorities, parents brought the case to police. Police would only say they investigated "all aspects" of the case when asked if they are probing the school employees' failure to report.

Antioch Superintendent Donald Gill said in a statement, "Ms. Allen-Caulboy is no longer a District employee, and has not been in a District classroom since Jan. 18, 2013. Other than that I cannot comment on personnel matters."

A call to Allen-Caulboy was not returned. School board members either declined to comment or did not return calls. Other administrators did not return email requests for comment this week, which is the Antioch schools' spring break.

Malik

In an interview this week, Megan and Larry Evans, two of the parents behind the lawsuit, described the harrowing deterioration of their son Malik under Allen-Caulboy's care: After starting at Grant Elementary on Nov. 1, the 5-year-old would sometimes come home from school crying. He also became aggressive at home, his parents said. School officials told Megan that Malik was going through a transition, she said.

Finally, she and Larry lost patience and pulled Malik from the class.

"I was sick of seeing my son upset," she said tearing up. She told her son he was leaving the school and "he leaned in to me and he gave me a kiss and that's all I needed."

They had put their frustrating 5 1/2-week stint at Grant behind them when, Megan said, she received a phone call Feb. 20 from an Antioch police detective. According to Megan, the detective said an aide to Allen-Caulboy reported that the teacher had backhanded Malik and otherwise abused him.

The lawsuit lays out other, similar incidents: On Jan. 17, it says, a school employee told Teresa Green that Allen-Caulboy pinched her 7-year-old autistic son's nipple to get him to follow instructions. The teacher would often yell at the boy, the employee added, using derogatory terms such as "retard." The mother reported this to Antioch police Jan. 21.

Heather Carranza, another plaintiff, said she began noticing bruises on her autistic 6-year-old daughter in December. The girl told her mother they were inflicted by Allen-Caulboy; Carranza called and emailed complaints to the principal.

Other unidentified parents, not part of this suit, also have complained this school year. In a Dec. 10 email to administrators, obtained by the parents' attorneys through a public records act request, Wax described how he had a "productive" phone call with an unidentified mother who was upset the district was not taking her Allen-Caulboy concerns seriously.

"We assured her that the site is conducting an investigation and that this process is confidential with due process rights being afforded to teacher. Further, she was intending to file a police report and be interviewed by the local newspaper because the site was not attempting to resolve this issue," he wrote. "We were able to de-escalate her and she is now not going to follow-through on the above steps."

Warning signs

The district documents show that knowledge of Allen-Caulboy's behavior was widespread among school employees: Speech and language pathologist Denise Olivieri told administrators she saw Allen-Caulboy punish two students by having them lie "face down, nose to ground on their carpet squares," called "better choice rugs."

Twice in November, and again in December, Olivieri said Allen-Caulboy yelled at nonverbal students at close range.

"In general, I have noticed Mrs. Caulboy use harsh tone, negative verbal reinforcement and inappropriate means of punishment for a special education classroom," Olivieri wrote in a Jan. 17 letter.

Another parent accused Allen-Caulboy of causing a bruise on a boy's head, according to Green's investigative report into the allegations, dated Jan. 17 and obtained by the attorneys. During that investigation, one teacher's aide told Green of what happened to Malik: "Twice she has observed Mrs. Caulboy use the back of her hand to hit this child in the mouth," he wrote. He added that the aide "is bringing this information to the principal in light of recent newspaper articles regarding a teacher."

Staff writer Paul Burgarino contributed to this report. Contact investigative reporter Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.