Fulton schools pay firm $180K over abuse allegations

by: Mike Petchenik Updated:

The Fulton County School Board has paid a law firm more than $180,000 to defend the system against school abuse lawsuits, records obtained by Channel 2 Action News reveal.

Earlier this month, an administrative law judge ruled the school system must cover the cost of a private education for Alex Williams, a special needs student whom the judge ruled suffered abuse at the hands of former special education teacher Melanie Pickens.

Fulton County Administrative Law Judge Kimberly Schroer's ruling came as a result of an investigation, which determined Fulton County School officials knew Pickens was abusing students at Hopewell Middle School, but failed to report it for several years, records said.

"The school district's own witnesses admitted that the placement of a severely disabled child in classroom with a teacher who was known to be abusive, in a school that was headed by a principal who repeatedly failed to act on reports of such abuse, constituted an inappropriate educational placement," Schroer wrote in her decision. "It was common knowledge on 'G Hall' that Pickens was abusing students, and the abuse was happening pretty much on a daily basis. The undisputed evidence is that Pickens would scream at all the children, including Alex, every day. She would burp in their faces, shake and press her breasts in their faces, press her buttocks in their faces and pass gas."


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Schroer found the district "was aware Pickens was hurting children for many years and yet allowed her to remain as a teacher at Hopewell," and that former principal Francis Boyd "created an 'atmosphere of intimidation' at Hopewell and that many of the educators and staff were afraid they would lose their jobs if they continued to make reports about Pickens."

Attorney Chris Vance represented Williams' family in the administrative court hearing. She told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik the family tried to settle their case out of court, but school attorneys refused.

"I have to question the counsel the school board is receiving," she told Petchenik. "Let's look at the facts. The attorneys giving advice to the school board are the ones making the money. That's concerning to me."

Petchenik filed an open records request to find out how much money the district paid its firm to handle Williams' case, and the case of Jake Marshall, another student abused at the school. That case was settled.

Wednesday, school officials gave Petchenik nearly 50 pages of invoices dating back to 2009. Records show the district has paid Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers nearly $182,000 in legal fees.

"I'm outraged," said Vance, who points out that the bulk of the fees were incurred after the district declined to settle the case. "We should not be using taxpayer money to litigate and lawyers make money. We should be using that money to educate Alex and the others abused, and all the other children in the Fulton County system."

Vance told Petchenik the costs will only mount, because the school system is required to pay her attorney's fees, which were about $500 per hour. In addition, Vance told Petchenik Williams' private education will cost taxpayers $1 million. The family also intends to seek damages in excess of $10 million from a federal lawsuit.

Fulton County Schools spokeswoman Samantha Evans told Petchenik the district would have no comment about the attorney's fees because it's an ongoing case.

School officials have previously said they will seek criminal charges against Pickens.