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Florida Teacher and Two Aides Locked Autistic Kids in Pitch-black Bathroom, Punished Child with Whistle: Police

Three employees of a Florida school for disabled students were charged this week with aggravated child abuse against three autistic children.

Teacher Margaret Wolthers, 48, and two classroom aides, Diana LaCroix, 52, and Carolyn Madison, 47, stand accused of abusing Silver Sands School students between September 1 and November 14 last year. Two of the children were aged 8 and the third was aged 10. 

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office alleged the teacher and aides “maliciously” blew a whistle into the ear of a child who wore earphones to protect him from loud noises. They also allegedly threatened him with the whistle. Two witnesses who saw their punishments take place informed the school’s resource officer, who contacted an abuse hotline—sparking an investigation.

It emerged at least three children had been placed—both individually and collectively—into a bathroom with the door shut and lights off, causing them to the “scream and cry.”

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley said in a media briefing on Monday that there had been multiple incidents. The probe remains ongoing, but he noted the punishments were going on for “some time.” He also revealed Wolthers is the wife of a Okaloosa County Sheriff deputy.

“It was learned that Wolthers, Madison and LaCroix were placing three autistic children…into a pitch-black classroom bathroom for punishment,” Ashley told local reporters. “There was no supervision in the bathroom at the time. One student, per the witness, was held for 90 minutes. The other two students were held for an unreasonable amounts of time.”

The sheriff said the school district had cooperated fully with his investigation. “The principle confirmed that school policy does not allow for seclusion without supervision as a form of punishment and it is prohibited,” he noted. “Likewise, holding a student captive while blowing a whistle in their ear is not an acceptable form of discipline or protocol.”

Silver Sands School is located at Fort Walton Beach. Online, it says it serves “approximately 170 students with disabilities ranging in age from 3 to 22 from Okaloosa and Walton counties.”

Marcus Chambers, the County Schools superintendent, said on Monday: “We will not tolerate the actions or inactions of any of our employees who are not doing right by our students.”  

In the same briefing, police announced that a guidance counselor at Florida’s Shalimar Elementary School had been charged with failure to report child abuse. Sharen Burt failed to report that a 5-year-old was alleging being sexually abused by another student at the school, Ashley said.

Burt told an employee of its “Boys and Girls Club” that she has suspicions it happened there and not at the school, but “did not make a notification to the state as required by law.”

Yahoo Lifestyle reported yesterday that LaCroix and Madison were booked into Okaloosa County Jail on Monday and released the following day on $10,000 bond.

Wolthers had not turned herself in at the time of the Monday press conference. According to inmate records posted online, she was booked yesterday at 3:14 p.m. No bond was listed.

Chambers said an internal investigation would soon be launched. “We have approximately 4,000 employees in the school district and probably 99 percent of them are making the right decisions each and every day for our students,” he elaborated. “When these situations do occur it is something that we will not tolerate. It is something we are going to look into seriously.”

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