A South Carolina teacher has been arrested and charged with a felony count of unlawful neglect of a child, after allegedly hitting a nonverbal autistic student with a dustpan and putting dish detergent in the child’s mouth, reports WBTV News of Myrtle Beach, SC.
A witness at Myrtle Beach Intermediate School told police on Thursday that teacher Moncille Thomas, 57, put dish detergent on her fingers, then put her fingers inside the mouth of a nonverbal autistic student, to discipline him for spitting. The police report says that the teacher then struck the child twice in the chest with a dustpan.
A spokesperson for Horry County Schools told WBTV that Thomas is a special education teacher who has been teaching for 28 years and was employed by Horry County Schools in 2004. The school district has placed the teacher on administrative leave, with pay, pending an investigation.
In the interest of privacy, the student’s name and age have not been released, but Myrtle Beach Intermediate School teaches fourth and fifth grades.
Under South Carolina law, unlawful neglect of a child is a Class E felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Thomas’ bond was set at $20,000 at a hearing.
WBTV reports that audiotape of the hearing includes these words from the boy’s father:
“I watched a lot of harshness she was doing. Whatever the bond is, I hope it’s the highest you can give.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, dish detergent and dish soap are poisonous. Ingesting dish detergent can cause swelling of the throat, burns to the esophagus, breathing difficulty, and rapid changes in blood pressure and blood acid levels, among other problems. Of course, much depends on the detergent’s ingredients, the amount consumed, and other factors, like how much time lapses between ingestion and treatment. But detergent is nothing to mess with: earlier this month, a baby died in Florida after accidentally eating a laundry detergent packet.
I understand that working with special needs students is challenging work. I have two children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and I get that there may be frustrations involved. But when you are working as a schoolteacher — of any student — you are responsible for the safety of that child. This is not debatable.
Teachers of special needs students, particularly those who are nonverbal, are caring for some of our most vulnerable children. Obviously, abuse of any child should not be tolerated, but abuse of a child who is not capable of reporting the incident is even more disturbing. If Moncille Thomas is found guilty, I hope that will be factored into her sentencing.
My heart breaks for this child and his family. How does a child or a parent trust educators after something like this happens? How do you hand your child over to any other adult after this? How much does it damage any progress an autistic child has made in terms of social interaction? We’re potentially talking about years of communication and social skills therapy down the drain.
For most of us, stories like this are painful to read and painful to write. We are left feeling helpless and angry, and wondering what the hell is wrong with people. But these stories, which are all too frequent, are terrifying to many parents of special needs children. Because for those parents, the worry isn’t, “Could this happen to my child?”
The worry is, “Would I even know?”
(Photo Credit: Myrtle Beach Police Department)
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