Parents sue, saying teacher abused her students

by: Mike Petchenik Updated:

ATLANTA,None - A judge heard testimony Monday that a former Fulton County special education teacher repeatedly abused children in her classroom, and that the district repeatedly ignored it.

The parents of former Hopewell Middle School Student Alex Williams are suing the district over the abuse and accusing district officials of covering it up for years.

"It was an everyday of living hell," said Lisa Williams, whose son has cerebral palsy.

Williams said she didn't learn about the abuse until two years after the district wrapped up an internal investigation into the actions of Melanie Pickens, who resigned rather than be fired.

"I was never notified. The police were never notified. Nothing was ever done," she told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik.

"It wasn't about helping Alex once they knew," she said. "It wasn't about getting support to Alex once they knew or helping to heal him once they knew. It was about damage control."

Williams' attorney, Chris Vance, told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik she's never seen a case quite like this one.

"What it shows is a systemic pattern of abuse of those children who can't go home to tell their parents what's happening," she said.

Monday, several witnesses testified in an administrative court hearing, the first step to taking the case to Federal Court, about what they saw Pickens do to Alex and other kids in her class, including cursing at them, hitting them, kicking them, isolating them in rooms, and in several cases, passing gas in their faces.

Former Pickens paraprofessional, Denise Baugh, testified she witnessed Pickens abuse her kids "daily."

"What was done to stop Pickens from pushing Alex down?" questioned Vance.

"Absolutely nothing, from the day I saw it," Baugh testified.

Former Hopewell teacher Susan Tallant testified she saw Pickens push Alex Williams into the lockers on several occasions. When asked if it was common knowledge that Pickens was abusing students, Tallant testified: "You had to be deaf, dumb and blind (not to see it). Everybody saw it," she said.

Tallant testified she reported Pickens to school superiors in May 2007 after she found another student, Jake Marshall, strapped to a chair in a classroom by himself, with feces all over his body.

"The smell was horrible," she testified, at times holding back tears.

Tallant testified that after she reported the incident to her superiors, school leaders retaliated against her, eventually moving her out of special education classes into a science class, which she was not prepared to teach.

Former special education department head Stacy White said she took teacher concerns to then principal, Francis Boyd, but was told nothing would be done about it.

"Ms. Boyd was at a loss for what she needed to do next," White testified. "She basically was not going to do anything. That's what I meant by pushing it under the rug."

Marshall's family has since settled a lawsuit with the district over the incidents. The Williams are asking a judge to force Fulton County schools to pay for 10 years of private education for Alex, who is now 18. Vance said that could cost about $2.5-million.

Vance said parents want Fulton County School police to charge Pickens with a crime, but she said she believes since the police work for the school system, nothing will happen.

"You can't get the police to go after a vicious child abuser and cover it up at the same time," she said. "There were a lot of good educators telling everyone what was going on trying to get help, students tried to report it. The school district covered it up."

Melanie Pickens was in the courtroom Monday, but left before Petchenik could question her. A man who identified himself as her attorney declined to comment.

A Fulton County school spokeswoman told Petchenik the district can't discuss specifics of the case because of the litigation, but Samantha Evans sent Petchenik a statement about the situation:
"The Fulton County School System will not tolerate the mistreatment of any children and has strict policies in place to prevent such actions. We have hundreds of caring, devoted individuals who work every day with our students with disabilities."



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