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When a 14-year-old special needs student in Ohio told her father she was being bullied at school, he figured it was something that many teenagers endure.
Then he realized it was his daughter’s teachers doing the bullying.
“We were shocked,’’ he tearfully said. “We couldn’t know. We didn’t know.’’
After being told repeatedly by school administrators that his daughter was lying about being harassed and bullied, he outfitted her with a hidden tape recorder under her clothes. For the next four days, she recorded a series of abusive and cutting remarks from a teacher and a teacher’s aide at Miami Trace Middle School in Washington Courthouse, Ohio.
The father, Brian, and his daughter, Cheyanne (their last names were withheld in the interview), appeared on TODAY with their attorneys Tuesday as snippets from the secret audio tapes were played.
When asked by Ann Curry how all of this made her feel, Cheyanne simply replied, “Sad.’’
‘Are you that damn dumb?’
The tapes reveal teacher Christie Wilt and her teacher’s aide, Kelly Chaffins, saying disturbing things to Cheyanne in the classroom. Cheyanne, who is now in high school, was in Wilt’s class for three years of middle school. Chaffins has since resigned, while Wilt had to undergo eight hours of anti-bullying and child abuse training. On Monday, Wilt was put on unpaid leave for the rest of the school year, but Cheyanne’s family is hoping to prevent her from ever teaching or working with special needs students again.
Wilt, who did not respond to requests for an interview, can be heard on the recordings alongside Chaffins calling Cheyanne “lazy” and “dumb.”
“Cheyanne, are you kidding me? Are you that damn dumb? You are that dumb?’’ Chaffins can be heard saying in one instance. “Oh my God. You are such a liar. You told me you don’t know. It’s no wonder you don’t have friends. No wonder nobody likes you because you lie, cheat.’’
On another occasion, Chaffins can be heard poking fun at Cheyanne’s appearance.
“Cheyanne, don’t you want to do something to get rid of that belly? Well evidently you don’t because you don’t do anything at home. You sit at home and watch TV. All night. All weekend.’’
In one instance, Wilt informs Cheyanne she has failed a test before Wilt even takes a glance at it.
“You know what? Just keep it,’’ Wilt can be heard saying. “You failed it. I know it. I don’t need your test to grade. You failed it.’’
Punished on treadmill
“Listening to seven hours’ worth of stuff on this tape, we were up all night, crying, upset, because we didn’t understand why,’’ Cheyanne’s father said tearfully. “Why would they do this?’’
On another day, Chaffins forced Cheyanne to walk on a treadmill as a punishment for getting a question wrong. The school district claimed the treadmill is just there to “refocus’’ students and not punish them. Chaffins later declares that Cheyanne has broken the treadmill and should run in place.
The problems for Cheyanne began in fifth grade and became progressively worse until culminating in an eighth-grade year that was “just terrible,’’ according to her father.
“She got to where she didn’t want to go to school,’’ Brian told Curry. “Cheyanne’s always loved school. We never had a problem with her. She was doing things, (and) starting to harm herself to keep from going to school, so we knew we had to do something at that point.’’
Cheyanne’s parents repeatedly contacted the school, only to be consistently rebuffed.
“We weren’t getting anywhere,’’ Brian said. “Every time we called, it was always, ‘Cheyanne’s lying, Cheyanne’s making up stories. She’s taking parts of this story, parts of that story, and making her own story.’ ’’
Her parents then went to the school’s principal, whose investigation consisted of speaking to Wilt and Chaffins, according to Brian. Feeling they were getting nowhere, Cheyanne’s parents then met with Miami Trace superintendent Dan Roberts.
“(That was) the first time we ever spoke with the man,” Brian said, “and he told us we were bordering on slander and harassment so (we should) let it go and he would guarantee me the best education possible,’’ Brian said.
After the damning evidence on the tapes was brought to school administrators’ attention, Chaffins was asked to resign, while Wilt, who was in charge of the classroom as the teacher, had to undergo the anti-bullying training. Roberts told a local television station that Wilt’s role in the incidents “did not meet what the educational aide (Chaffins) had done.’’
‘I just hope they do something’
The family filed a civil lawsuit against the school district and were awarded $300,000 in damages. But Brian felt he needed to go public with the story to prevent Wilt from being allowed back in the classroom. The family’s attorneys indicated that they would like Wilt to be terminated from her position.
“I just hope they do something with this teacher,’’ Brian said. “She doesn’t need to be around kids at all. She participated in it, she was right there. I’m looking out for (Cheyanne), but also I’m worried about the other children in that class and what they went through.
“She’s (Wilt) just as much to blame, if not more, because she’s the one who takes that oath to protect our children. She has more education than the teacher’s aide.’’
As for Cheyanne, the full effects of the harassment on her are not yet known.
“Cheyanne right now, she’s doing OK,’’ her father said. “She’s trying to forget. She knows that they did something bad to her, but we don’t know years down the road what’s going to happen.’’