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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

School Allegedly Ignored Special-Ed Abuse

APPLETON, Wis. (CN) - A Wisconsin elementary school's closed-door policy allowed one special-education teacher to beat and terrorize disabled children, the parents of six such children claim in Federal Court.

When the allegations against Mary Berglund came to light last year, Janet Berry Elementary School principal Richard Waters, whose office sat across the hall from Berglund's classroom, did not report Berglund to the state, according to the complaint.

Berglund, 54, pleaded guilty in December 2011 to five counts of battery and one count of child abuse. Several other counts, including one for strangulation, were dismissed.

Currently serving three years of probation, Berglund is not allowed to have unsupervised contact with any children under age 12, except for family members.

In a civil complaint, six families say their children were stripped of their right to "bodily integrity and to be free from physical and emotional abuse from government employees."

Five of the children are allegedly totally nonverbal, and one has only limited verbal skills.

They recount a raft of indignities allegedly perpetrated by Berglund while she worked as a special education teacher at Janet Berry Elementary School since at least 2006.

The complaint says Berglund squeezed one child so hard that his mouth bled; she dragged another by his leg across at least one yard of carpet; she lied on top of a student for eight minutes and choked him for several minutes as other disabled children watched; she shoved dirty facial tissues into one student's mouth; she told another student she wished she punish her for being loud by spraying lemon juice at the child's face; she forcefully shoved a fork in the mouth of one student; and she was "unreasonably rough" when wiping a student who used the toilet.

The children, who range in age from 9 to 12, are diagnosed with various disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, visual and cognitive disabilities, and a seizure disorder.

Berglund's abuse allegedly went on for years since the children could not share their experiences and because school staff members either ignored or were ignorant of the allegations.

An educational assistant in the classroom said she did not report the abuse to the principal because "she did not believe he would act on the information," according to the complaint. That assistant "said that she was intimidated by [the principal] and ... believed he had ignored a similar report several years earlier."

Though the special education classroom "is located in direct view of the principal's office," Principal Waters let Berglund enforce a "closed door policy" that required the door to remain shut and visitors to knock before entering.

Unwilling to report Berglund's tactics to Waters, the assistant told a principal at another elementary school in the Appleton Area School District, who then confronted the Waters in January 2011, according to the complaint.

The district former assistant superintendant allegedly gave Outagamie County Child Protective Services a full report of the alleged abuse on Jan. 25, 2011, more than two weeks after Berglund's teaching assistant shared her concerns with the other school principal.

Even then, the school waited two full days to put Berglund on administrative leave, letting her stay in the classroom with the children in the meantime, according to the complaint.

The parents say other staff, including three other educational assistants, a custodian and a speech pathologist, could have reported Berglund over the years, but they instead stood idly by.

The families are seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the violations of the 14th Amendment and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which sets anti-discrimination standards for schools that receive federal funding.

In addition to Berglund and Prinicpal Waters, defendants to the complaint include the school district and its current superintendent, Lee Allinger. The families are represented by Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick of Disability Rights Wisconsin and Jason F. Abraham with the Milwaukee firm, Hupy and Abraham S.C.

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