Smoke and fire in a Willmar classroom

Is a Willmar school teacher abusing her special education kids or not? The state Department of Education is going to have to decide that after five different investigations of special education teacher Lisa Vander Heiden.

According to a complaint filed with the department, and reported in the West Central Tribune, the teacher abused an elementary school special needs student for more than two years. The school district hired a law firm three times to investigate Vander Heiden. The firm cleared the teacher twice, but a third investigation into five specific allegations of abuse toward two students found that there was evidence the teacher refused to allow a girl use of the toilet facilities, calling it a “lapse in judgment.”

The state, in two investigations, found evidence in both cases that something isn’t right. One special needs student was placed at a desk with walls on three sides, then in a locked room, and denied toilet facilities.

In another investigation in April, the state found another case of denying students use of the toilet.

Again with the toilet denial.

The teacher in question was on administrative leave until this school year, when she was transferred, according to Margaret O’Sullivan Kane, the St. Paul civil rights attorney representing the child and her family, to a school that provides an “adolescent treatment unit that serves young people with mental health and behavioral issues who come from all over the state.”

This was after, according to the Tribune, paraprofessionals came forward and blew the whistle on the situation.

In investigative reports obtained by Kane, paraprofessionals are quoted referring to Vander Heiden’s room as “more of a punishment/torture area than a classroom,” and “more of a room for punishment and verbal and emotional abuse.”

A summary of allegations in the various investigation reports includes accusations of Vander Heiden yelling at children, belittling them, cuffing them on the backs of their heads, grabbing or jerking them by the arms, pulling their hair and excessive use of restraints and seclusion.

Reaction on the Web site included a mother of an autistic boy in New London, Minn., who said…

“A non verbal autistic child has been restrained now 2+ times and has come home with bruises, scratches, abrasions. The areas on his body are/were collar bone, wrists, ankles, upper arms, back, and his poor hands and fingers were swollen and his fingers blue and purple. This little boy loved to go to school. The last incident happened just a week and a half ago. My husband had to take 4 days off of work last week and be at home to put our son on the bus and be on ‘stand by’ for the call from the school, as I just can’t go anymore. The last time I went – I had all I could do not to just ‘lose it’ and ‘go off’ on his teachers.”

These sorts of allegations, even unproven, are troubling. Who wants to err on the side of the kids?

We’ll find out on Friday when a hearing is held.