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Aberdeen educators appeal in special-ed abuse lawsuit

8th circuit 1920 1080

Parents of five special education students sued the Aberdeen School District in 2018 in federal court.

The parents allege that a teacher subjected the students to physical restraint, seclusion as punishment, and unnecessary force, among other offenses.

The parents also accuse administrators of ignoring complaints.

The federal circuit judge presiding over the case issued an order last October and held that the case can continue to a jury.

The employees appealed, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on Wednesday, May 11.

District Judge Charles Kornmann issued an order that outlined 42 decisions, some of them finding, as a matter of law, either for the school or for the parents. As for disputed material facts, he said those are to be determined by a jury.

The students are all non-verbal, some with autism, some with physical incapability. The alleged abuse was witnessed by other professionals or parents, documented in depositions.

Allegations include that the children’s teacher confined students in a small windowless room, that she grabbed students by the arms and jerked them around, that she pushed one boy into a YMCA pool, that she forcibly stripped another boy to get him ready for swimming, and that she left students sitting in their own urine or feces.

The plaintiffs contend that the teacher’s supervisors were repeatedly told about violations, but they took no action and kept no record of reports.

The individual school employees appealed the judge’s order. They were represented at oral arguments by Zachary William Peterson.

Peterson told a three-judge appellate panel that other lawsuits with more egregious allegations did not rise to the level of constitutional violations. And he said the teacher in this case, Carrie Weisenburger, was not acting out of malice, as defendants in other cases had.

“Weisenburger was trying—perhaps overzealously—trying to get these kids to engage in the educational opportunities they were being offered,” he said.

Peterson said no evidence supports that the children were physically or psychologically damaged.

But the attorney for the parents and students said otherwise.

Margaret O’Sullivan Kane told judges that the children were not able to speak for themselves, and the abuse they suffered would not be tolerated by students who could speak up. And she said school administrators had the opportunity to put a stop to the abuse but chose to look away.

“The fact that they interfered with these children’s bodily integrity by excessively restraining, confining them, dragging them—there must be some relief for the constitutional harm,” she said.

The Eighth Circuit panel will deliberate and issue an opinion at a later date.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.