WILLIAMSON — The final order for a pretrial disposition agreement was signed by the defendant, prosecuting attorney and Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury for a Mingo County case that stemmed from allegations of abuse against special needs children in a classroom over one year ago.
The State of WV vs. Tina Grace (Indictments A12-F65 and A12-M3), was based on information that the defendant, who was a special education teacher at Riverside Elementary and employed with the Mingo County Board of Education, physically abused 2 students that were in her classroom and under her care. The allegations were thoroughly examined by Sandra Hensley with the Institutional Investigation Unit of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR). Hensley interviewed several people that had direct knowledge of Grace’s behavior and demeanor toward the special needs students and gave eye witness reports to what they heard and seen. Based on that information, Hensley made a finding that child abuse had indeed occurred.
These reports, along with others, were presented to the Grand Jury by Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney C. Michael Sparks and an indictment was achieved in September of 2011against Grace on 2 felony counts of child abuse resulting in bodily injury, which were later reduced to misdemeanors.
The report from Hensley identified numerous occasions of reported abuse against a male, special needs child that included smacking the juvenile on his bare buttocks while he was trying to pull up his diaper and pants. Grace denied that allegation when questioned by the DHHR investigator, and defended herself by saying she did not smack the child, that she may have patted him on his bottom but it was in an affectionate way.
The defendant is said to have made the child stand for periods of time that were much longer than his handicap would allow without discomfort, using this technique to punish him for being unruly, loud or failing to sit still. She was allegedly overheard telling the child that she would “make him stand there all day if he didn’t behave.”
All those questioned regarding this case had the opinion that Grace was excessive with demands she made of the special needs children and expected too much from them, considering their disabilities. The teacher is said to have punished the child by mimicking his behavior, for instance if he pulled her hair, she would yank his. She told an aide that “this is how you handle this.”
One of the teacher’s aides told Hensley that Grace told them to smack the special needs children’s hands for discipline if they misbehaved. Furthermore, direct instructions from the teacher were given regarding the male child that was identified in the indictment, directing the aides that if he really got out of hand, to firmly pinch the skin between his thumb and forefinger. Grace told the aides that she had the permission of several of the student’s parents or guardians to smack them if they got out of line, which turned out to be untrue. Both aides stated that on more than one occasion, Grace has made statements that “if the school board came in and caught her doing certain things that she (Grace) would be fired.” Grace however, said that what she meant by that statement was that should the school board observe her classroom, she would be in trouble for “going so far over and beyond what is expected of her.”
Another special needs student who was allegedly abused by the defendant was told to perform a writing assignment of tracing over the dotted pattern of the number “1”. According to an eye witness, the child was denied attending both his gym and music classes, while he struggled to complete the assignment. The aide brought the student’s lunch tray to him at approximately 12:45 p.m. but Grace reportedly would not let him eat until his assignment satisfied her. The aide further stated that the special needs child had completed the paper a number of times, but each time Grace would erase his efforts and told him it wasn’t good enough. Finally, after a time span of an additional 45 minutes had passed, the teacher finally deemed the assignment as being satisfactory, but gave him another copy of the assignment and made him also finish it. Grace then allowed the child to eat his lunch, but refused to allow the meal to be reheated.
The aide stated that this particular child loved to eat, and said that the teacher had on several occasions, placed his tray beside of him where he could see and smell the food but would not allow him to eat. She is also accused of popping popcorn and while the other children ate their share, she would only let this particular child smell it, taunting him that he couldn’t have any.
An aide told the investigator that several years before the above listed incidents of abuse occurred; Grace had a female special needs student with Downs Syndrome. The student had a problem with balance, and Grace would allegedly make her stand until she reached the point of shaking and sweating for long periods of time with only a few short intervals of rest. She was made to do this inside the classroom and also out in the hallway. The student was also made to stand on a half sphere called a “turtle” that when used properly, is designed to help improve balancing skills. Although the student has now left Riverside Elementary, she is said to, when questioned, still have vivid memories of what happened and said that she liked the school and she liked to learn, but that she did not like the “turtle”.
Kim Chapman, the mother of the special needs boy that suffered at the hands of the teacher, had this to say about the plea that Grace agreed to take, and spoke of how this situation has forever changed her life.
“In the final order of the plea, Ms. Grace agreed that the statute of limitations in this case would be tolled, that she would voluntarily dismiss the grievance she had filed against the Mingo County Board of Education following her dismissal, that she would remain permanently terminated from employment in the county and that if she violated any of the terms she had agreed to, the plea could be revoked and she could face further prosecution,” stated the mother.
“Knowing that she will not have the opportunity to ever put another child through what my son experienced fills me with tremendous satisfaction…that was my goal. My entire family has suffered greatly, but nothing can compare to the suffering I know my son went through and couldn’t express to any of us what was happening.”
“He has had more surgeries and more hospital stays than I can count. He’s suffered physically and mentally all his life, but by God’s mercy, he has survived against all odds. No child deserves to be abused by their teacher or by anyone for that matter, but it takes it to a whole new level when you abuse one that you know can’t tell on you.”
“I can’t thank Michael Sparks enough for not giving up on this case or allowing Ms. Grace to walk away with only a firm talking to and a promise to do better. Michael kept at this case until he was satisfied that justice had been served. I told him whether he realized it or not, he has become a voice for the voiceless…he stood up for my son and the other children who were abused and held Ms. Grace accountable for her actions.”
Chapman stated that she will never completely regain the feeling of peace she once had when she would walk out of the classroom and leave her son behind in the care of another, but did say that she is very pleased with those assigned to him this school year, and remarked that his aide is wonderful with him.
“He’s a happy little boy again, and that means the world to me.”
Sparks provided this final comment regarding the abuse case:
“The pretrial disposition order fulfilled our objective of securing the future protection of special needs children who are unable to speak for themselves. I have been assured by representatives of the WV Department of Education that Grace’s teaching certification will be suspended, which will be documented in a national data base that can be accessed in each and every state.”
“Tragically, teacher mistreatment of special needs children is not uncommon.”