FULTON COUNTY, Ga. - A judge heard disturbing testimony Monday in the case of a former Fulton County special education teacher accused of abusing several students.
Melanie Pickens faces nearly a dozen charges of abuse stemming from her days with the district.
Pickens and her attorneys argue she should be immune from prosecution because she was merely disciplining students in her capacity as a teacher.
A former paraprofessional who worked with Pickens at Hopewell Middle School in Milton testified she witnessed Pickens shoving students into lockers. Cynthia Eitmann testified, however, she believed it was in an attempt to correct misbehaviors.
“My observation she was trying to get him to do what she instructed him to do,” Eitmann testified.
Eitmann testified she believed Pickens had a good relationship with her students, including one named Jake Marshall.
“I felt like she felt she was making progress, helping him with his behaviors,” she testified.
But on cross-examination, Eitmann testified she did not subscribe to Pickens methods, including strapping children to a special chair and leaving them alone in dark rooms if she considered them to be misbehaving.
“Had you see any other teachers put their students in a restraint device and seclude them?” asked assistant district attorney, Jay Hughes.
“No,” said Eitmann.
“Have you ever done it?” said Hughes.
“No,” said Eitmann.
“Why not?” asked Hughes.
“I don't believe in doing that,” Eitmann said. “I stay with the students."
Eitmann and former teacher Susan Tallant both testified about the time they found one student strapped to the chair covered in his own feces after Pickens had left him alone in a room.
“He had feces everywhere,” Tallant testified. “All over himself, his face, his clothing, the tray that was in front of him. It was on the floor."
Judge Henry Newkirk also heard testimony that Pickens would frequently scream into the ears of at least two non-verbal students in a practice she referred to as “scream therapy.”
Hughes showed the judge an assistive device, called a “Big Mac,” that allowed non-verbal students to express themselves to teachers. Instead, Hughes said Pickens recorded the children crying or screaming, then played it back in their ears at a loud level.
"I believe sometimes he would stop, other times it would make him more upset,” Eitmann said of the students’ reaction to the practice.
Pickens former paraprofessional assistant, Judy Massey, was called to the stand but asserted her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. Her attorney told the judge she was fearful the state might indict her in the case. Prosecutors indicated they were still deciding whether to pursue criminal charges against Massey for her role in the alleged abuses.
A friend and former co-worker of Pickens, Stephanie Sosebee testified she believed Pickens also had a good relationship with her students.
"I think she loved Jake, loved having him,” she said of Pickens' relationship with Marshall.
But when confronted by prosecutors, Sosebee conceded she was concerned that Pickens was becoming increasingly frustrated with her students.
“She was frustrated and it was time for her to make a move,” Sosebee testified.