The former teacher of an autistic boy allegedly mistreated by staff at a New Jersey school did not call him "a bastard" or make other harsh comments that were secretly recorded by the child's father, her lawyer said in a statement.
The statement also accused the boy's father, Stuart Chaifetz, of putting the teacher, Kelly Altenburg, and her family "in harms way," and said she wasn't even in the room for part of the day.
Chaifetz, 44, put a recording device on his son Akian, 10, and captured audio of staff in his class at Horace Mann Elementary School in Cherry Hill calling him names and laughing at him. Chaifetz said he was trying to get to the bottom of why teaching staff said his son was acting out in class. He later posted the audio on YouTube after what he described as inaction by the school board.
After the recording emerged, Cherry Hill schools put out a statement saying that "individuals who are heard on the recording raising their voices and inappropriately addressing children no longer work in the district and have not since shortly after we received the copy of the recording.”
At least one classroom aide reportedly lost her job, but the state's largest teachers union said that because Altenburg had been transferred to another school, and not fired, she had been exonerated of making the remarks. Cherry Hill Superintendent Maureen Reusche, however, said "the investigation remains ongoing."
Chaifetz, an investigator with an animal protection group, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK, has said he believes Altenburg was one of those making offensive comments in the classroom, and that as the teacher in charge, she should be held responsible for what he considers "bullying" behavior by other staff.
He decided to put a wire on Akian after getting repeated complaints that the child was hitting teaching staff and throwing chairs. He could not understand why his son would act in this way and decided to try to find out what was going on in the classroom. Akian's autism made it difficult for him to explain what was happening.
Chaifetz, speaking in a YouTubevideo that contained clips from the February recording, said the tape revealed that staff at the school were "literally making my son's life a living hell" by calling him a "bastard," telling him to "shut up," and apparently mocking his desire to see his dad.
Shortly after Chaifetz posted the video, it went viral, and had garnered more than 3.4 million views as of Friday morning. An online petition to "pass legislation so that teachers who bully children are immediately fired" had 128,000 signatures.
The statement from Altenburg's lawyer said the accusations had "hurt her deeply" and she wanted to "set the record straight."
"Mr. Chaifetz ... has been disingenuous in his assertions and has failed to advise the public accurately, including the fact that for at least approximately one hour in the beginning of the day at issue, Mrs. Altenburg was not even in the classroom with Mr. Chaifetz's son," the lawyer, Matthew B. Wieliczko, wrote in the emailed statement. He said she was at a "Professional Learning Community Meeting" that morning.
The statement said she had not made the comments Chaifetz attributed to her. In fact, Wieliczko said, the comments were "not even made in her presence."
He said there was "no basis, either legal or truthful" for Altenburg to be held accountable for the words and actions of others "which occurred outside of her presence and without her knowledge."
"We request that parents, students, the public in general, as well as Mr. Chaifetz and the news media outlets respect the basic right not to pre-judge this matter or jump to unwarranted and inaccurate conclusion," Wieliczko said.
But on Friday, Chaifetz dismissed the importance of Altenburg's assertion that she wasn't in the classroom for the first hour, saying that "the bullying and inappropriate comments happened throughout the day."
"And there are times when you can specifically hear her. She talks about me at the beginning of the day, she talks about other parents," he told msnbc's Thomas Roberts. " … pretend the first hour didn't happen. everything else adds up to that teacher should not be in that classroom in my opinion. It was just wrong. The entirety of that day was just wrong."
Pat Gesualdo, president of the nonprofit group Drums and Disabilities, said Friday that he had filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that Akian’s civil rights as a disabled person had been violated by the school system, including his teacher and the school.
He said it was filed for two reasons: to push for the removal or resignation of Altenburg and to hold all of the players involved accountable. Chaifetz was not involved in the complaint, said Gesualdo, whose group helps special needs individuals through drum therapy.
Speaking to msnbc.com Thursday, Steve Wollmer, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said Altenburg was “very serious about her work, really sees it as her life’s calling and is very good at it.”
In an earlier interview, he said that "before people accuse people of things, they want to know if they're accusing them fairly or accurately."
"What if she were not present at the time? There were teacher aides involved in this. What if she were not in that immediate part of the room? If you don't witness something, how can you stop it?" Wollmer said.
Chaifetz has said he intends to campaign until Altenburg is no longer allowed to teach children.
"Even if she said nothing, she should be fired because that room was her responsibility," he added.
"I'm not letting this go. I will take this to the department of education and get her license revoked so she cannot work anywhere else," Chaifetz said.
"I think there need to be offenses that teachers get fired for, regardless of tenure or not," he added. "When you can prove bullying by a teacher, tenure should be meaningless."
Child 'doing much better'
Akian has now left Horace Mann, and Chaifetz said he was "doing much better now he's away from there."
"He doesn't have any of the behaviors he had then. It only happened when he was with the teacher, Kelly Altenburg, and the aide," he said. "But I think he's got some scars from this. How could he not?"
Chaifetz said the public reponse to his efforts has had been "overwhelming."
"There are so many wonderful people, people with stories of them being bullied, they are coming in every hour, hundreds of emails," he said. "This is really pervasive. There's a lot of bullying, there's a lot of bullying of special needs kids. It's like an epidemic."
He said his son's case had "opened up a big window into what's going on."
"People feel like they're alone," he said. "One positive thing that has come out of this: They saw a parent standing up and it's helping them stand up too."
The Associated Press has found at least nine similar cases across the U.S. since 2003. It said parents of special needs students had secretly recorded teachers using insults like "bastard," "tard," "damn dumb" and "a hippo in a ballerina suit." A bus driver threatened to slap one child, while a bus monitor told another, "Shut up, you little dog."
Chaifetz said he had given advice to "a couple" of other parents on how to put a wire on their child after they contacted him about it, but cautioned people to check to the laws in their state.
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