Autistic Kids Punished With Darkness, NoiseC. Dixon
A teacher and two aides are facing first-degree felony charges after abusing three autistic children in their care as “punishment” for poor behavior.
The abuse occurred multiple times over the course of two and a half months, beginning September 1, 2018, and ending on November 14, 2018, at Silver Sands school in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Silver Sands is a special needs school that enrolls roughly 170 students with disabilities annually, ages 3 to 22.
Two of the children abused were 8 years old, and one was 10 years old.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office reported that teacher Margaret Wolthers, 48, and two aides, Diana LaCroix, 52, and Carolyn Madison, 47, used noise and confinement in a dark room as punishment.
To punish the autistic child with a low sensory auditory threshold, they “intentionally and maliciously” blew a whistle in his ears. The child typically wore headphones at all times to protect his ears from loud noises, as they could feel quite painful. When abusing him, the three adults would remove his earphones and hold his arms down so he couldn’t cover them. Wolthers, LaCroix, and Madison were aware of the boy’s needs, as they had all previously signed school documents outlining his specific disabilities.
The arrest reports also stated that the three women would threaten the child with the whistle at other times “to correct his behavior.”
Wolthers, LaCroix, and Madison also placed three children in solitary confinement as punishment. On separate occasions, one at a time, the students would be placed into Wolthers’ classroom bathroom alone with the lights turned off and the door shut. They would “scream and cry” while shut in the bathroom, and if they tried to turn on the lights or open the door, one of the three women would make them stay in there even longer.
Unsupervised confinement or seclusion is considered a form of child abuse in Florida.
The abusers’ attorneys were notified on Monday, January 28, that warrants had been issued for their arrests, and they were to report to the county jail by the end of the day. Wolthers, the wife of an Okaloosa County deputy, did not report by midnight on Monday, and had to be picked up by sheriff deputies Tuesday around 1:30 PM.
All three women have been on paid administrative leave since the allegations were first raised in November, but are slated to be suspended without pay at the next school board meeting.
The felony charges of aggravated child abuse leveled against the three women can carry a maximum prison sentence of 30 years, as well as a fine of up to $10,000.