A Florida teacher and two aides face aggravated child abuse charges after allegations that they locked three autistic students into a pitch-black bathroom and blew a whistle into the ear of one of them.
Silver Sands School teacher Margaret Wolthers, 48, and the aides, Diana LaCroix and Carolyn Madison, were investigated after another teacher’s aide at the school reported multiple incidents of abuse to a school resource officer. According to Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley, the three staff members were involved in enforcing the unlawful punishment of three autistic students — two 8-year-olds and one 10-year-old — on multiple occasions during the period from Sept. 1 to Nov. 14.
“There was no supervision in the bathroom at the time,” Ashley explained during a press conference on Monday. “One student, per witness, was held for 90 minutes in at least one incident. The other two students were held for unreasonable amounts of time.”
A report from an alternate witness also stated that Wolthers and the two aides had been “intentionally and maliciously” blowing a whistle into the ear of another autistic student with a low sensory threshold. The staff members held the child’s arms down, while another a staff member would blow the whistle within 7 inches of the student’s ear, Ashley said at a news conference. The student wore headphones as protection from loud noises.
Silver Sands School principal Jon Williams confirmed to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office that school policy doesn’t allow for seclusion without supervision as a means of punishment.
In an unrelated incident within the Okaloosa County School District, a guidance counselor was charged for failing to report suspected child abuse. According to Ashley, Sharen Burt had been advised of an allegation of sexual abuse last October involving a 5-year-old student at Shalimar Elementary School, and neglected to call Florida’s child abuse hotline. The mandatory reporter instead informed a member of the Boys and Girls Club of the allegation, who later notified the police department.
The Okaloosa County Schools superintendent, Marcus Chambers, insisted at the joint press conference with the sheriff that the incident is something that the school district is “going look into seriously.”
“We in the school district will not tolerate the action or inaction of any employee that is not making the right decision when it comes to the health, safety and welfare of our students,” Chambers said. “We also, too, will do an investigation internally.”
Silver Sands School is a school for children with disabilities, according to its website.
LaCroix and Madison were booked into the Okaloosa County Jail on Monday. They were both released on $10,000 bond on Tuesday, respectively, and await a hearing. There are no booking records available on Burt.
Wolthers, who is the wife of an Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputy, had not turned herself in as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Michele Nicholson, a spokeswoman for the Okaloosa County sheriff.
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