By the second week of school last fall, Kandy Escotto knew something was amiss with her 5-year-old.
Her son, Aaron, complained about going to school. He brought home poor grades. Then, while they were working on homework together, Aaron told his mother that he was a bad boy.
"I said, 'Why do you say something like that?' " Escotto said. "He said, 'That's what the teacher tells me when I don't do my work.' "
Escotto said she complained to Banyan Elementary School Principal Cheri Davis about Rosalba Suarez, a 33-year veteran teacher who was named teacher of the year this year at the school in Westchester. She said the principal told her she needed proof that Suarez was bullying her son.
So Escotto bought a recorder, placed it in her son's backpack for four days in October and listened to 32 hours of audio.
Escotto heard Suarez humiliating her son and another boy, calling them "loser." The teacher told Aaron that his mom was driving her crazy, and ostracized him for not correctly learning how to bubble in a test, according to the recording.
When Aaron said he didn't want to participate in class, Suarez is heard on the recording saying, "I don't care, don't do it, you think I care? Whatever your mom wants to see, honey, whatever your mom wants to see, you tell me what she wants to see a nice job or she wants to see a loser's job."
"For me to hear the things that she was saying to him," Escotto said. "She picked him out, she singled him out, she humiliated him in front of the whole class. She talked about me in front of him. No 5-year-old should be able to go through that. That affected my family, affected him."
Escotto set up another meeting and confronted Suarez, who, according to Escotto, said she was lying, that it wasn't true and that she would never do something like that.
Neither Suarez nor Davis, the school's principal, responded to phone calls or emails with requests for comment. Suarez hung up on a reporter.
"It was very upsetting being that I myself heard what was being said to the little boy," Escotto said.
Escotto hired a lawyer. Attorney Sonia Roca contends the recording is legal as the classroom is a public space.
"She did what I feel any mom would do when they’re faced with no other choices," Roca said.
Roca put the district on notice of the mother's claim with a certified letter in November. She received a letter acknowledging the claim from Gallagher Bassett, the district's third-party and self-funded administrator for its workers’ compensation and liability program, which investigates claims and determines liability. An adjuster called Roca to get more information, but she said she never heard back.
After taking a few months to make sure the case was legally sound, Roca held a press conference last week so the media could hear Escotto's story.
Escotto said the school's principal offered to transfer Aaron to another class. Escotto reluctantly agreed, saying that Aaron wasn't the problem.
"I transferred him out of the class because I didn’t want him to keep suffering," she said. "He went from having F's to having excellent grades."
Escotto said she hasn't decided if she will take legal action against the school, but she wants the teacher to be disciplined. The Miami-Dade County school district has opened an investigation into the matter.
“Miami-Dade County Public Schools goes to great lengths to promote a culture of dignity and respect, not only among our students but with our employees," spokeswoman Jackie Calzadilla said in a statement. "We work diligently to ensure the well-being of every child entrusted to our care. Any action that runs contrary to the values we instill in our school community will not be tolerated. The district will conduct a thorough review of this matter and, if the allegations are substantiated, we will take any and all appropriate disciplinary actions.”
Escotto also isn't sure her son and 10-year-old daughter will return to Banyan Elementary this fall, adding that other teachers have gone above and beyond for her kids.
"It’s sad that we have to get to this point to get a response from somebody to look into this complaint that I put in a long time ago," she said.