YULEE, Fla. -- The Nassau County School District and the Department of Children and Families have confirmed they are investigating alleged abuse by an aide against an Exceptional Student Education, or ESE student at Yulee Primary School.
According to an aide who previously worked for the elementary school, the alleged abuse is both verbal and physical in nature.
The incident took place at the beginning of the school year, a witness told First Coast News, but the information wasn't originally turned over for investigation due to fear of retaliation.
DCF interviewed students in the ESE class and some parents with students in that class told First Coast News that they were not made aware of these interviews. Some of these children are dealing with autism, Down syndrome, are hard of hearing and some are even nonverbal.
But DCF says that's not true, telling FCN it is protocol to both inform and interview the parents of students involved in investigations and that all parents in this instance were, indeed, notified.
Mark Durham, spokesperson with the Nassau County School Board, said he believes it is the school's responsibility to reach out to the parents of students who have been contacted by authorities like DCF.
However, he said that he spoke with Principal Mathis of Yulee Primary and she said that on Friday, Sept. 16, DCF had contacted all the parents of children who had been interviewed.
Neither authority seemed to know how communication had been broken, following multiple phone calls to both.
James Young said DCF never contacted him.
His daughter is in the class room where the alleged abuse took place. He was alerted to the interview by an eyewitness, an aide that was present in the classroom.
Young reached out to DCF who confirmed this. James said he still has not received anything from the school or been contacted by DCF as of Tuesday, Sept. 20.
When asked specifically how DCF investigators interview students, particularly ESE students, DCF spokesperson John Harrell says the protocol does not differ from interviewing other students.
Harrell did acknowledge that DCF investigators understand they may not get the information they are seeking from students with special needs.
A concerned mother, Stephanie Jervis, said her 8-year-old daughter told her she has been physically abused in the classroom at issue. She said she was never contacted by the school or DCF either.
"Her behavior since school started has really gone downhill," Jervis said.
Jervis asked her daughter if anyone had been mean to her at school, and her daughter told her she had been hit on three different occasions by the teacher. The girl told her mother she'd once been punched in the back.
Jervis says both she and her daughter followed up with the DCF investigator the day after she and her classmates were interviewed, and were told that no students reported abuse, including Jervis' daughter.
When Jervis questioned her daughter in front of the DCF investigator, her daughter divulged the same three incidents to the investigator that she'd discussed with her mother previously, according to Jervis.
However, because her information did not line up with the interview, Jervis says the investigator told her there would be no criminal charges filed.
Another parent, who had issues with Yulee Primary last year, Stephanie Smith, has moved to a different county in order to send her son to a different school.
Smith's son was a student being taught by the same teacher who is currently under investigation.
At the beginning of the 2015 school year, her five-year-old autistic son, who was very limited in language at the time, began exhibiting previously unseen behavior, including refusing chairs and indicating he was not allowed to sit because he had not completed certain objectives.
At that point, Smith asked her son's Applied Developmental Analysis therapist, Erin Casper, to go into the classroom with him.
Following two separate visits, one on Sept. 17 and one on Sept. 23 of 2015, Casper wrote a long letter to the principal of Yulee Primary addressing her concerns with the classroom, at the principal's request, following a meeting they'd had.
Her findings are not unlawful abuse, but according to Casper, who is a certified school psychologist, they do not align with best practices in the classroom.
"I just can't say enough," Casper said of the alleged misconduct she had witnessed last year.
During computer time with the children, Casper writes that Smith's son had looked away from his computer for "approximately 15 seconds" and was scolded "harshly" with "a stern voice" three or four times within one minute.
"For a five-year-old boy with an educational classification of autism in a busy classroom setting, it did not seem problematic that he looked around the room for such brief periods," Casper continues in her letter.
This scolding culminates in Smith's son having his chair taken away from him by an aide and placed "several feet away" in order to keep him engaged in his work.
Casper said it is questionable to use a tactic that's obvious intention is to make a child uncomfortable.
Despite being very verbally limited, Smith's son asked for his chair properly by name twice, to which the same aide replied by saying no and physically blocking the boy from his chair, according to Casper's account of events.
"Language is difficult for him and he asked appropriately, for the little guys that's such a huge and successful accomplishment for him," Casper said in a phone interview, expressing concern about the ramifications of not rewarding such a feat.
To other students eyes were rolled, tones were terse and even when a student answered a question wrong they were told it was a "waste of time" to teach them, according to Casper.
Casper said it was very obvious she was a guest in the classroom, "A lot of times the team will be on their best behavior, so it raised a red flag."
Following writing this letter Casper said the principal told her she agreed some of the language was "outdated" and that further training would be administered.
Casper said as a mother with two children nearing school-age in the Nassau County School District, what she witnessed was disheartening.
"Perhaps they're not looking after the kids as you expect them to be," she said.
So, what does this mean for the teacher in question? DCF has said that it typically asks school district whether the aide can be out of the classroom for the length of the investigation. Mark Durham with the Nassau County School District says he is not aware of any leave of absence, stepping down, or removal of the authority from the classroom in question at this time.