In December 2012, a Fulton County Grand Jury returned an eleven count indictment against former special education teacher, Melanie Pickens, for allegedly abusing children in her care. She was charged with Cruelty to Children and False Imprisonment in connection with the physical abuse of five Hopewell Middle School students.
The alleged abuse occurred between 2004 and 2007. According to the investigation, the victims, most of whom were non-verbal, were either pushed, shoved into lockers and/or left in isolation for hours on end. The alleged abuse of one student was discovered in 2007 by school officials and then reported to the Department of Family and Children Services. The case was initially handled as a human resource matter, centering on the abuse of that child. A civil suit involving that single victim led to the discovery of four other potential victims. The case was eventually brought to the attention of law enforcement and a criminal investigation was launched. The case was forwarded to the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in May 2012.
According to the indictment, Pickens restrained and isolated students in a dark room, slammed students face-first into lockers and walls, and screamed into their ears. Pickens allegedly loudly played back a recording of one child’s cries directly into his ear. The Professional Standards Commission revoked Pickens’ teaching certification and Pickens resigned in 2007.
On February 4th, 2014, Judge Henry Newkirk granted immunity to Pickens, after hearing three days of testimony from people who witnessed her actions at the school. Judge Newkirk acknowledged the allegations, but said Georgia law protected teachers who were disciplining students.
At the National Down Syndrome Congress, we are stunned by this week’s ruling. Both the leadership and membership of our organization are outraged by Judge Newkirk’s decision.
As we followed news reports of Melanie Pickens alleged abuse of students in her care dating back to 2004, we applauded the Fulton County School System in investigating and removing her from Hopewell Middle School, and believed the revocation of her teaching certification was appropriate.
Then, following a criminal investigation and indictment, we looked forward to justice being served in a criminal court. We are truly shocked at the decision to dismiss by Judge Newkirk, and find it hard to fathom the decision he made.
As the oldest national organization advocating for people with Down syndrome, the National Down Syndrome Congress is deeply disturbed by this decision, and the ramifications it can have for all students with disabilities.
Clearly, the abuse inflicted upon these students would not be considered as appropriate disciplinary techniques by any reputable behavior expert. As the school system’s physical therapist who worked with the victims noted, the abuse of the children was not protocol for disciplining students with disabilities.
Just as blood-letting is no longer an accepted medical practice, it is beyond our imagination that these acts could be considered “carrying out her teaching duties” in good faith. For Judge Newkirk to rule in this manner, despite expert testimony, gives the impression that he considers individuals with intellectual disabilities to be less than human and not deserving the same protections afforded others. All students have the right to be safe in their school environment. We believe this despicable conduct must be addressed criminally. We hope and trust that a higher court will overrule Newkirk’s outrageous decision.