The ongoing situation at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, where three employees are accused of abusing nonverbal special needs students and a fourth who worked in the same classroom has been fired, highlights the continuing concern of how these students are treated across West Virginia.
The three workers identified earlier this year — teacher Anthony Wilson, and aides Lillian, or Lilliana, Branham and Walter Pannell — face misdemeanor battery charges after classroom video reportedly revealed alarming behavior. The three shouted at autistic children and struck them in the face to keep them in their chairs, and didn’t allow bathroom breaks for long periods of time, causing some of the students to soil themselves, alleges a separate civil lawsuit. Pannell has denied the claims in the civil suit.
This week, the Kanawha County Board of Education voted to fire James Lynch, who worked in the same classroom as the other three. The board didn’t specify a reason for letting Lynch go, although board member Tracy White indicated that it was one of perhaps several disciplinary actions concerning treatment of special needs students. The Charleston Police Department also confirmed that Lynch is under investigation, but didn’t specify why. Lynch hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime.
Lynch no longer was working in the classroom in May, when the incidents involving the other three employees allegedly occurred. However, Kanawha schools spokeswoman Briana Warner said a review of video footage from the classroom going back to earlier in the year raised concerns about Lynch’s behavior, and the school district contacted law enforcement.
This isn’t the first time reported abuse of special needs children has been an issue in West Virginia. In fact, part of the reason there are cameras in those classrooms is because of a bill passed by the Legislature in 2019, after allegations of abuse surfaced from Berkeley Heights Elementary.
In October 2018, parent Amber Pack noticed that her 6-year-old daughter came home from the school with bruises. Pack hid an audio recording device in her daughter’s hair bun and sent her to school. The recording captured chilling verbal abuse that caused outrage and alarm, while also making national headlines.
So, if the cameras captured what was alleged to have occurred at Horace Mann, it would appear the law is working. Of course, there always are questions about what isn’t caught or reported. And the fact that anyone has to rely on surveillance in the first place is disheartening. A school isn’t a place parents should have to fear sending their children, especially those with special needs.
Perhaps White, who has three autistic children and has been a legislative advocate for special needs students, put it best Monday when she said, “As adults we — we send our kids to school and we teach our kids that monsters don’t exist. But sometimes, they do.”