A teacher’s aide recently caught on secret recordings berating autistic children at a Pembroke Pines elementary school has gotten in trouble before for her treatment of a student.
Five years ago, Joyce Latricia Bradley was accused of striking and bruising a 10-year-old autistic boy with a marker after he misbehaved in class. Months after her arrest for misdemeanor battery in September 2014, Broward prosecutors dropped the case, acknowledging something many South Florida parents don’t realize.
Despite efforts to outlaw the controversial practice, Florida law allows educators to hit children as discipline.
The Broward County school district, which has a policy against corporal punishment, nevertheless allowed the aide back into a classroom for students with disabilities at Pasadena Lakes Elementary.
Now Bradley, along with special-education teacher Tahisha-Ann Brown, has been removed from the classroom as authorities probe accusations they harangued children with curse words and belittling language. Concerned parents hid an audio device inside their 6-year-old son’s backpack, and recorded the outbursts. At least one parent believes her daughter’s strange bruises and scrapes may have been caused by one of the two adults in the classroom.
Parents say they were shocked to learn — after the small class of mostly non-verbal students was disbanded and students placed with other teachers — that Bradley had previously been arrested.
“Such an oversight, it’s scary,” said Miriam Adar, the Fort Lauderdale mother who was so troubled with her son’s bizarre behavior, including curse words she believed he mimicked from the adults, that she outfitted her son’s backpack with a device that allowed her to record the teachers. “It makes me think the schools are desperate.”
The family of the boy that accused Bradley of battery in 2014 was not surprised.
“We were disheartened that after she battered our child, she was allowed back into a classroom, and even more so a class for young children with disabilities,” said the father, who asked not to be identified so as not to identify his son. “We hope this employee is never, ever allowed to have contact with children in a classroom.”
Bradley, 49, did not return requests for comment. Nor did her defense lawyer from the 2014 case. As for Brown, she was reached by phone and said “You’ll have to talk to my lawyer” before hanging up without providing a name or contact info.
The identities of the women, as well as Bradley’s past arrest, had not been reported until now.
A Broward schools spokeswoman, Cathleen Brennan, acknowledged that a teacher and aide have been reassigned away from the school and students. Police detectives are now investigating.
“School and District staff continue to work with law enforcement and the District’s Special Investigative Unit regarding the open and ongoing investigation,” Brennan wrote in an email.
The secret audio recordings, first aired by WSVN-7, have caused a stir among parents of special-needs students in Broward County. The uproar was enough that Broward Superintendant Robert Runcie met Monday with a group of parents from the Pasadena Lakes class and vowed the two women would not return to the classroom.
Bradley, 49, began her career in the Broward County school district in 1998. Records show she began her career as a teacher’s assistant at Pasadena Lakes in 1999.
Records show she has received satisfactory evaluations by administrators every year, including the 2014-15 school year when she first came under investigation by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
The victim was a 10-year-old autistic boy who is able to speak and function at a relatively high level. On Sept. 9, 2014, the boy was misbehaving in class, police said, and used a marker to mark Bradley’s shirt. The woman responded by snatching the marker away, then striking the boy three times in the shoulder with the tip, according to a police report.
The boy suffered three small circular bruises. The child’s parents noticed the bruises that night, and he told them what happened. Bradley was reported to supervisors and police. Pembroke Pines Police’s special victims unit arrested Bradley for misdemeanor simple battery.
While she was awaiting trial, her lawyer submitted documents to the schools saying that Bradley admitted to writing on the student’s shirt “but not poking” him, according to personnel records. She claimed she did not know how the bruising occurred.
The attorney wrote Bradley “was not an angry person” and “deserves the benefit of doubt.” The lawyer wrote: “She was just trying to make an impression on child.”
A Pembroke Pines police investigator, however, found “there was no evidence to support Joyce Bradley’s account that she wrote on the child.” No ink from the marker was found on the child’s shirt.
On February 23, 2015, a schools professional standards committee found that there was probable cause of alleged battery and inappropriate conduct. A few weeks later in March, even while her criminal case was still pending, Bradley received her punishment: a letter of reprimand.
A few weeks later in the criminal case, Bradley’s lawyer asked a judge to dismiss the case, saying that Florida law and courts permit a “simple battery in the administration of discipline by one in authority over a child.” In May 2015, prosecutors dropped the battery case, writing “we could not in good faith” disagree with the law, according to an internal memo.
“My wife and I never agreed with the prosecutor’s position that the law allows a school official sitting in the shoes of a parent during the school day to maliciously batter a child to the point of bruising his or her flesh, even if the child is misbehaving,” said the child’s father, who is a lawyer.
Corporal punishment — spanking, paddling and other forms of physical discipline — is still legal in public schools in 19 states, many of them in the South. A bill to abolish corporal punishment in Florida introduced this past session failed. In recent years, states such as Texas and Louisiana have amended their laws to ban physical punishment against children with disabilities.
“There’s 50 years of research saying corporal punishment is not effective. In fact, it’s the least effective form of punishment,” said Victor Vieth, director of education and the national Zero Abuse Project. “And children with disabilities are much more likely to be hit because they often have behavioral issues.”
In Florida, counties can forbid corporal punishment. Miami-Dade and Broward districts have policies banning it. Still, Bradley’s only punishment was the letter of reprimand.
It was earlier this year that parents in the seven-student classroom began to notice troubling behavior by their children when they came home.
Gisela Lopez noticed her 6-year-old daughter’s normally happy disposition change after starting school in October at Pasadena Lakes.
“She was using cuss words, angrier, a lot more physical,” said Lopez, 27. “She has a little brother that she adores, but after everything going on she would push him out of the way, push her father, tell us to sit down and shut up.”
Lopez said she asked Brown, the teacher, about the behavior and was reassured nothing was amiss in class.
“That’s what I kept getting told, ‘Everything was fine,’” she said.
Lopez also noticed scrapes on her daughter’s knees and hands — the teacher said the girl had fallen on the playground. But administrators told Lopez there has no record of her daughter going to the nurse’s office for that reason.
Ezra Adar, 6, was coming home with similar outbursts,
“For about three months, he’d been very wild and we’d been trying to figure it out, working the therapist,” said his mother, Miriam Addar. ”We never expected it was coming from the school.”
Ezra soon began cursing. Like many autistic children, he often mimics words and phrases that he hears. One day, he cried out: “Miss Brown is going to f**k you up.”
To investigate, the Adars purchased an “Angel Sense,” a device that allows parents to monitor their special-needs children via GPS and two-way audio. When the Adars listened in through the device, recording from their end, they heard both adults in the class regularly yell at the children.
Said Matt Adar, the boy’s father: “We weren’t trying to figure out if someone was abusing our son. We were just trying to figure out who was cursing in his vicinity. We didn’t think it was someone cursing at him.”
The voices recorded berating the autistic children are jarring.
“I don’t know what you on this month but you tryin’ to get hurt. Sit down,” said one woman, believed to be Brown.
In other clips, a voice the parents said was Bradley says “Get your asses to the bathroom” and “You better not touch me or scratch me, you understand? You are getting a diaper change!” she said.
Bradley, according to the audio, also seems to be mocking school administrators: “Those motherf***ers can’t say s**t to me ‘cause I know they ain’t gonna do absolutely zero.”
In another clip, a girl can be heard crying and screaming in response to yelling by one of the adults. Then came another sound.
“As soon as my daughter started crying, I knew that was her,” Lopez said. “It either sounds like she’s clapping in my daughter’s face, trying to scare her, or it sounds like she might be hitting her.”
That same day, Lopez said, her daughter came home with a bruise on her arm. The child is non-verbal and could not describe what happened.
Earlier this month, armed with the recordings, the parents banded together and confronted school administrators. Brown and Bradley were removed from the classroom pending an investigation.
Four of the students were moved to other classrooms, while the other three changed schools.
“These were very nice teachers. They were friendly to us,” Miriam Adar said. “There was no tip-off. We didn’t think they were abusive.”