Pranee Andrus, a Florida teacher, has been arrested and charged with child abuse after being accused of dropping an autistic child, having other children hit and kick him as punishment, and threatening to cut off children’s tongues with scissors.
During the last week of school, Nina Moreno-Hanson received one of the most horrifying phone calls a mother could get.
“I was at home with my one-year-old,” Nina told me in a phone interview. “At about 12:30, I got a phone call from the school, from the Assistant Principal, who said, ‘I’m just calling to let you know he’s in the nurse’s office.'”
Nina’s first thought was that her son had a stomachache.
And then the Assistant Principal of Narcoossee Elementary School said, “He’s in the nurse’s office because he’s being looked over for abrasions. An allegation was made by the teacher’s aide that he was dropped by the teacher.”
Nina was informed that the teacher had been removed from the St. Cloud, Florida school, and per protocol, the school had called the Sheriff’s office and the Department of Children and Family. Nina texted her husband, who met her at the school, where they saw the Sheriff’s car parked outside.
“We were taken to the assistant principal’s office,” says Nina. In the office, Nina and Craig found a deputy sheriff, the teacher’s aide who had made the accusation, a human resources representative for the school, and their 5-year-old son, Phoenix. A representative from the Department of Children and Family (DCF) was still speaking to the school nurse.
“The teacher’s aide said that Phoneix took a toy from another kid,” Nina told me. “And then the teacher came over, grabbed the toy, and gave it to another student. She then picked up Phoenix by his arm and dropped him. He crawled away, and tried to hide under a desk. The aide said Phoenix was crying. Then the teacher pulled and dragged him out. She was about to yank him up, and the teacher’s aide stepped in, and said, ‘no, you can’t do that.'”
Phoenix had some abrasions, including what looked like a rug burn on his elbow.
Nina and Craig were, of course, horrified.
“I thought I had a relatively good relationship with the teacher,” said Nina. “She used to text me and let me know how Phoneix did during the day.”
At this point, the deputy broke the news to Nina and Craig that according to the witness’ statement, this was not the first instance. Nina wrote in her blog,
I was taken aside by a deputy and told that according to statements made by the person who witnessed the act and brought it to the attention of the assistant principal this was not the first instance.
This was not the first instance.
This was not the first.
This was not.
This was when I fell apart in a stranger’s office. This is when I gave birth to the beast inside me and she wailed. I swelled with tears and rage and I wanted to grab my child and run as far as I could take us. I wanted to ask him, this baby child of mine, this one I carried and birthed and whose tiny hand I had held in a NICU, and this boy who had charmed my entire heart and taught me his hyper language of love, repetition and laughter, and I wanted to ask him what had been done to him.
“The aide reported that this was not the first incident of something happening,” Nina said. “The aide said she had zeroed in on Phoenix, as the only nonverbal student,” but she also threatened other children.
“She would hold scissors up to their mouths and threaten to cut off their mouths. She would threaten to cut off their feet if they tried to run away. She would get the other kids to kick Phoenix as a method of discipline.”
Phoenix is, technically, verbal. However, his speech is firmly rooted in echolalia, or the repetition of words and phrases. In other words, if Nina asks him, “Did you have a good day?” He will answer, “Good day.”
Police initially wanted to do a forensics interview with Phoenix, but since his congitive level is below the age of two, it was determined that an interview could not be done.
“Phoenix was the only nonverbal kid in the class,” Nina said of the public, special needs preschool class. There were seven students in the class. An adjacent classroom had another seven special needs students. Between the two classrooms, there were two teachers and four classroom aides.
Out of the five adults who potentially witnessed the alleged ongoing cruelty, only one person, a classroom aide, came forward voluntarily. One person who was interviewed was not willing to give a statement because she was not willing to help another teacher lose her job, said Nina.
I was able to review a copy of the witness statement given to the sheriff’s deputy, and it is beyond horrifying. It reads, in part:
“Phoenix was trying to take toys away from another student. Ms Andrus yelled, “Phoenix you will share!” Phoenix did not comply, so Ms. Andrus yelled again, “You will share! You are not gonna do that!” Ms. Andrus then pulled him up roughly by the arms and tossed him on the ground. Phoenix landed on his bottom hard and Phoenix began to cry. Phoenix was then pushed on his back by Ms. Andrus as she yelled, “You stop!” Ms. Andrus then grabbed Phoenix by his feet, and pushed his legs into his chest, then dragged Phoenix across the carpet on his elbow approximately 6 feet. Ms. Andrus dropped his feet and walked away, yelling “Stay away from me, Phoenix!” Phoenix ran to his safe place by the mats (in the classroom).”
At this point, the classroom aide intervened, and reported the abuse to the school principal. The witness statement continues:
“During this time she has witnessed Ms. Andrus tell the other children in the class to kick or push Phoenix when he misbehaves. [The witness] states Ms. Andrus rules the children by fear and threatens to throw them out the window when they misbehave. [The witness] witnessed another form of discipline by Ms. Andrus; Ms. Andrus has taken a large pair of scissors to the children’s tongues and ankles when they misbehave.”
Narcoossee Elementary is part of the Osceola County School District, which is no stranger to controversy recently. Parents of kids on the spectrum may remember reports of a different special education teacher using hot sauce as a punishment on autistic students earlier this year. Meanwhile, St. Cloud High School Athletic Director was arrested and charged with selling marijuana. The principal of a different elementary school resigned in disgrace after being arrested on multiple drug charges. And members of the school board have tried, but failed, to fire the School Superintendent.
“It’s a hot mess,” Nina agreed when I asked her about these other stories.
Phoenix is entering Kindergarten at a different school with a specialized program for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
“You hear about things like this,” Nina said to me, “But you have so much faith. You think it’ll never happen to us, but it did. It happened.”
Nina and another mom of a child on the spectrum have started a website called Phoenix’s Voice, to advocate against abuse in the classroom and to speak up for those who can’t. “Because when we discuss what is broken, together, we can find a way to fix it,” states the site. You can follow Phoenix’s Voice on Twitter and on Facebook.
(Photo Credits: Phoenix: Courtesy of Nina Moreno-Hanson. Mug shot: Bay News 9)