NDSC Shocked at Judge’s Ruling

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.

4 Responses

  1. Dixie Cargill Feb 13, 2014 - Reply

    This is my first time on this site. I am shocked at the teacher and the judges deciision. I have a Down’s son that is in his 50′s. I was told he would not live past 7. With God’s blessing he is doing well and has been a treasure to our entire family. The abuse that these children endured with the teacher getting a pass on is entirely out of line with any human rights even if they have not disability. Would the other students be treated the same way and would the teacher get a pass ? NO, you hear of teachers all the time that are sentences to some time of punishment for child abuse. WHY NOT FOR OUR CHILDREN THAT CANNOT DEFEND THEMSELVES. THIS JUDGE SHOULD BE DISBARRED.

  2. Michelle Feb 26, 2014 - Reply

    I know, I was only 21 when I had my son with Downs, (he’s now 14) and I use to worry about things like this! Luckily, the school he attends to has a gazillion aides coming and going, and I stay very on track with every single person that works there, goes there, including parents, (anyone that is even near the school lol) etc. However, I do live in a small town with wonderful people that I can trust…. THIS IS WHERE PARENTS ARE NEEDED. To keep a VERY WATCHFUL eye, on their disabled child! Like a dern hawk, if need be! I live in Cali. and am grateful for the connections I have, which gives me 100% power as a parent to choose what is best for my kid, at a public school. Parents need to get MORE involved BIG TIME…. heck take advantage of all the resources out there! (I so totally hate to bring this up, but politics get in the way of rights concerning special needs towards anyone….it makes me sick, but it is true)

  3. S Peterson Feb 27, 2014 - Reply

    This is also my first time on this site. I am appauld that the judge let this teacher off. She should never work with any students and especially students who are vulnerable. We had an instance in MN a few years back and college students from Concordia College got a bill signed and put into force as a teacher did the same thing to student at the elementary level. She was charged criminally and lost her licence. The law is called “Kyle’s Law” and if a teacher, nurse, administration, etc. ever suspects that a teacher is abusing or treating a student wrong – the parents are to be notified. and yes this judge should be disbarred. How would he react if it was his child being abused? .

  4. Tony Piontek Mar 04, 2014 - Reply

    I agree with these last two from their rightful responses and in ANY lawful
    accusations for this Judge should be revoked and disbarred. NEED to
    protect children who also have rights as well. “I just can’t believe this
    is still happening.

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