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Autistic boy's father: Why hasn't teacher been fired over 'bullying'?

 

Editor’s Note: The Cherry Hill, N.J., Board of Education cleared the teacher, Kelly Altenburg, of any wrongdoing in 2014. A New Jersey court also ruled that the surreptitious recording was illegal. The N.J. Department of Children and Families also conducted an investigation into the matter and cleared her of any wrongdoing. 

Updated at 4:40 p.m. ET: The father of an autistic boy allegedly bullied by staff at a New Jersey school has vowed to keep campaigning until the teacher of his son's class has her license revoked.

Stuart Chaifetz, 44, put a wire on his son Akian, 10, and recorded staff in his class at Horace Mann Elementary School in Cherry Hill calling the child "a bastard," talking about vomiting that morning due to a hangover, and apparently teasing the child to the point where he had a "half-hour meltdown."


At least one classroom aide reportedly lost her job and on Tuesday Superintendent Maureen Reusche said she wanted "to assure our parents that the individuals who are heard on the recording raising their voices and inappropriately addressing children no longer work in the district and have not since shortly after we received the copy of the recording.

But Chaifetz then said he had discovered that the teacher of his son's class, Kelly Altenburg, was moved to another school and not fired, while a teachers union official told msnbc.com Wednesday that Altenburg "basically was exonerated."

However on Thursday, Reusche and the education board president issued a statement saying it disagreed with the union official's claim, adding "the District does not consider the matter closed at this time as the investigation remains ongoing."

Chaifetz, an investigator with an animal protection group, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK, believes Altenburg was one of those making offensive comments in the classroom, and as the teacher in charge she should be held responsible for what he considers bullying behavior by other staff.

"When did teachers become more important than children?" he said.

"Even if she said nothing, she should be fired because that room was her responsibility," he added.

Chaifetz decided to put a wire on Akian after staff repeatedly complained the child was hitting them and throwing chairs around. He could not understand why his "wonderful, happy" son would act in this way and decided to find out what was going on in the class. Akian's autism meant he was unable to explain.

Chaifetz, speaking in a YouTube video that contained clips from the February recording, said the tape revealed that staff at the school were "literally making my son's life a living hell." 

"Okay, Akian, you are a bastard," was one comment on the tape from a woman Chaifetz said he's "99 percent" sure was the teacher.

"Go ahead and scream, because guess what? You are going to get nothing until your mouth is shut," a woman's voice was heard saying in another exchange.

He also recorded a conversation between two people in the class talking about the consequences of a night out drinking wine with a friend. 

"You know what I was doing this morning?" said one woman. "Heaving?" asked the other. "Oh my God, so bad. The wine won."

Speaking to msnbc.com Thursday, Steve Wollmer, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said that when he said Wednesday that Altenburg "basically was exonerated" he did so based on the district's statement that those who had used inappropriate language were no longer working in the district.

Wollmer said that as Altenburg had been reassigned to another school within the district, he thought she had been cleared. He admitted that he should have been more specific and said she had been cleared of making the "inappropriate" and "horrible" statements.

He said he did not know why Altenburg was still apparently under investigation.

Wollmer added that Altenburg was “very serious about her work, really sees it as her life’s calling and is very good at it.”

Speaking in general terms, he said that "before people accuse people of things, they want to know if they're accusing them fairly or accurately."

"What if she were not present at the time? There were teacher aides involved in this. What if she were not in that immediate part of the room? If you don't witness something, how can you stop it?" Wollmer said.

Altenburg's attorney, Matthew B. Wieliczko, said that "at this time, we have no comment," when contacted by msnbc.com.

Chaifetz said the school district's Tuesday statement "certainly made the public think that teacher was no longer there -- how else do you read that unless you are a Harvard-educated lawyer."

"I'm not letting this go. I will take this to the department of education and get her license revoked so she cannot work anywhere else," Chaifetz said.

"I think there need to be offenses that teachers get fired for, regardless of tenure or not," he added. "When you can prove bullying by a teacher, tenure should be meaningless."

Child 'doing much better'Akian has now left Horace Mann, and Chaifetz said he was "doing much better now he's away from there."

"He doesn't have any of the behaviors he had then. It only happened when he was with the teacher, Kelly Altenburg, and the aide," he said. "But I think he's got some scars from this. How could he not?"

The YouTube video containing clips from the recording had more than 2.9 million views as of 9 a.m. ET Thursday, and an online petition to "pass legislation so that teachers who bully children are immediately fired" had 111,000 signatures.

Chaifetz said the response has had been "overwhelming."

Dad wires up autistic son, 10, to expose 'bullying' by teaching staff

"There are so many wonderful people, people with stories of them being bullied, they are coming in every hour, hundreds of emails," he said. "This is really pervasive. There's a lot of bullying, there's a lot of bullying of special needs kids. It's like an epidemic."

He said his son's case had "opened up a big window into what's going on."

"People feel like they're alone," he said. "One positive thing that has come out of this: They saw a parent standing up and it's helping them stand up too."

The Associated Press has found at least nine similar cases across the U.S. since 2003. It said parents of special needs students had secretly recorded teachers using insults like "bastard," "tard," "damn dumb" and "a hippo in a ballerina suit." A bus driver threatened to slap one child, while a bus monitor told another, "Shut up, you little dog."

Chaifetz said he had given advice to "a couple" of other parents on how to put a wire on their child, after they contacted him about it, but cautioned people to check to laws in their state.

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