Teacher and aides lock children with autism in the closet, cops say

A teacher and two aides in a Florida school district were charged Monday with abusing children on the autism spectrum, including locking them in a dark room to punish them, investigators say.

On the same day, an elementary school guidance counselor from the same district was accused of not reporting the sexual abuse of a 5-year-old, sheriff’s deputies said.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday that the all four were expected to turn themselves into authorities by the end of the day. As of Tuesday, only two of the four appeared in online jail records.

The first case involved a teacher and two aides from Silver Sands Elementary, a school for children with disabilities in Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle.

Sheriff Larry Ashley said a teacher’s aide at the school reported the alleged abuse to the school resource officer. According to the sheriff’s office, teacher Margaret Wolthers, 48, and aides Diana LaCroix, 52, and Carolyn Madison, 47, were responsible for several incidents involving a 10-year-old and two 8-year-olds from Sept. 1 to Nov. 14.

“Investigators say on different occasions the teacher and aides ‘intentionally and maliciously’ blew a whistle in the ear of a child with a low sensory auditory threshold who wore earphones to protect him from loud noises,” the department said in a news release. “They also threatened him with a whistle.”

According to the warrants, Wolthers, LaCroix and Madison blew the whistle within 7 inches of the child’s ear.

“This was done while holding the victim’s arms down keeping him from protecting himself by covering his ears,” an investigator wrote in the warrants.

Jail records show that both LaCroix and Madison were both out of jail Tuesday, after each posting a $10,000 bond.

In addition, the sheriff’s office said the adults placed three students “individually, and on separate occasions in a classroom bathroom with the door closed and lights off as punishment for misbehavior.”

“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,” the department said in the release.

On Monday, Ashley and Superintendent Marcus Chambers held a press conference to discuss the charges.

“The principal in that incident confirmed that the school policy does not allow for seclusion without supervision as a form of punishment and is prohibited,” Ashley said in the conference, which was shared on the department’s Facebook page. “Likewise, holding a student captive while blowing a whistle in their ear is not an acceptable form of discipline or proper protocol of correcting this behavior.”

Ashley said that one of the educators involved in this case is the wife of a deputy, but did not specify which one.

In the second case, a guidance counselor at Shalimar Elementary School, near Fort Walton Beach, was charged with failure to report child abuse. The sheriff’s office says Sharen Burt, “failed to notify the Florida Department of Children and Families last October 19th that a 5-year-old student had alleged being sexually abused by another student at the school.”

“Burt called and told an employee of the Boys and Girls Club that she thought it happened there and not at the school, but did not make a notification to the state as required by law,” the department said in the news release.

Both Ashley and Chambers said Monday they wanted to send a clear message to everyone that these types of incidents are taken very seriously.

“We in the school district will not tolerate the action or inaction of any employee that’s not making the right decision when it comes to the health, safety and welfare of our students,” Chambers said.

Carli Teproff grew up in Northeast Miami-Dade and graduated from Florida International University in 2003. She became a full-time reporter for the Miami Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news.