A teacher and two teaching aides are facing first-degree felony charges for abusing students assigned to their care while at Silver Sands School.
A Florida teacher, Margaret Wolthers, and two teaching aides, Diana LaCroix and Carolyn Madison, at Silver Sands School in Fort Walton Beach, have been arrested for abusing autistic students under their care. They are facing first-degree felony charges of aggravated child abuse. It has been reported that the three employees would "punish" the autistic children through cruel practices, such as locking the children up in a dark bathroom in the school building and continuously blowing whistles in their ears. The abuse was first reported by a fellow teaching aide who was deeply disturbed when witnessing the employees' pattern of behavior. She took it upon herself to file a report with the Okaloosa Sheriff's office, which sparked an investigation into the matter. The investigation eventually resulted in the employees' arrests.
Silver Sands School, part of the Okaloosa County School District, has an educational program suitable for students with autism. As per their official school brochure, "The school serves students aged three to twenty-two who have cognitive disabilities. The curriculum is in accordance with Florida standards through Access Points." Therefore, the news comes as a shock to parents who trusted the school and its administration to educate their children with equality, care, and a sense of responsibility.
Though the school's program is open to students aged three to twenty-two, the students subjected to the trio's cruel punishment were eight to ten years old. According to the Okaloosa County Sheriff, Larry Ashley, the police were informed about the abuse towards the last few months of 2018, but they estimate that it had been going on for a longer period of time and suggest that there could have been other victims in addition to those who were affected by the reported incident.
Sheriff Ashley stated, "Classroom aides who witnessed the incidents say the victims would scream and cry when placed in the bathroom, and that one was contained for up to 90 minutes. They considered it an acceptable practice." Though the teachers could call on the principal, the school resource officer, or even the children's parents if the students got too out of control, they resorted to "intentionally and maliciously" torturing the children with unacceptable methods instead.
As per reports, Wolthers and her aides forced three students "on separate occasions, individually," into her classroom bathroom, turned the lights off in order to make the room pitch black, and closed the door, locking it behind her. A witness who saw the incidents take place claimed that the children would "scream and cry" when taken to the bathroom. To make the punishment worse, the students would be forced to stay inside the bathroom for longer if they turned the lights on or tried to open the door.
Along with this, one child - who was wearing headphones in order to protect him from loud noises - had a loud whistle blown in his ear. This was done while his arms were held down so that he would not be able to protect himself by covering his ears. As per the official arrest report, "[The student has] low sensory threshold (ears) and wears earphones to protect him from the pain of loud noises." On several other occasions, Wolthers, LaCroix and Madison would threaten the child with the whistle “to correct his behavior."
The arrests were announced by Sheriff Ashley and School Superintendent Marcus Chambers at a press conference held in the afternoon on January 28. Because, as Sheriff Ashley explained, the state statute specifically outlines unsupervised confinement or seclusion as a form of child abuse, the teacher and her aides will be facing serious felony charges. As per the Florida state stature, the first-degree felony charge Wolthers, LaCroix and Madison are facing carry a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
Individuals have expressed their disgust and shock via social media. On social media platform Twitter, Caruso72 stated, "Margaret Wolthers and aides Diana LaCroix and Carolyn Madison need to be expunged from our society. These are the vilest, most backward, and most despicable types that walk among us. The people of Fort Walton should remind these monsters daily that they are not welcome." Wagroton added, "As a mother of a 22-year-old autistic son, I cannot even read this. I am a complete pacifist but I would have to be physically removed from anyone who did this to him."
As someone on the spectrum with a hypersensitivity to sound, I can tell you that this would be legitimately torture and would be a first class ticket to setting off more meltdowns not less. Neurotypical folks have NO IDEA how horrific this really is.— Kaiserin Kai 🌹 Loves Dazai (@KaiserinKai) January 29, 2019
You can post this gif twice a week. Geez pic.twitter.com/tjw2op7H72— St. N!ck유™ (@buhloone) January 29, 2019
Man this is so wrong on all levels. WTH... pic.twitter.com/JaZZJy5R8s— Living Word Yehuda Shabbat (@LivingWordGosp1) January 30, 2019
When asked about how the County Sheriff's office and school district hope to prevent such cases in the future, Superintendent Chambers responded, "Moving forward, we have to be very vigilant in terms of our training [with our teachers] and that is one of the things we are looking at right now. I have actually asked the Department of Education to come in and look at our ESE department and give us very specific recommendations." As Silver Sands School tightens their training program, it is the community's hope that the children affected are able to heal from their trauma and no one ever has to experience such cruel abuse at school ever again.