When DODEA Investigates Teachers for Bullying, Parents Say They’re in the Dark

Candace Balfour and Sgt. 1st Class Edward Balfour are pictured with their children in their home at Robinson Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. Bryson Washington sits on the floor with a book. The Balfours said they were frustrated and angry at the way the military's school system handled a finding of emotional abuse substantiated by the Family Advocacy Program against Bryson's former teacher. (John Vandiver/Stars and Stripes)
Candace Balfour and Sgt. 1st Class Edward Balfour are pictured with their children in their home at Robinson Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. Bryson Washington sits on the floor with a book. The Balfours said they were frustrated and angry at the way the military's school system handled a finding of emotional abuse substantiated by the Family Advocacy Program against Bryson's former teacher. (John Vandiver/Stars and Stripes)

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- The special education teacher thrust a mirror in her student's face as he sobbed.

"Look at yourself," she scolded the boy. "Look at how disgusting that looks."

The boy, fifth-grader Bryson Washington, was enrolled at the time in Stuttgart Elementary School's program for students with moderate to severe disabilities, part of the Department of Defense Education Activity system in Europe.

The incident was part of a pattern of abuse that went on in the special needs classroom for months: Bryson would forget a word or write outside the lines, the teacher would punish him, and he'd act out.

But the mirror episode was the tipping point. Soon after, an anonymous report was made to the Family Advocacy Program, the military's equivalent of civilian child protective services.

A Family Advocacy investigation validated an allegation of emotional abuse against the teacher in October.

Bryson's parents, Candace Balfour and Sgt. 1st Class Edward Balfour, were devastated, but hopeful the school would act swiftly to mitigate the harm done to their son.

That didn't occur.

Although DODEA officials said they do not tolerate abusive conduct of any kind and that "students are at the heart of everything we do," what happened to the Balfours and others who contacted Stars and Stripes suggests otherwise.

Ten parents, including the Balfours, and former school employees described disturbing behavior involving teachers at three DODEA schools in Europe. Their allegations include educators berating and mocking second graders, calling a kindergartner by a racist term and locking a special needs fourth-grader out of the classroom.

Just as troubling as the teachers' alleged misconduct, said those interviewed, was the response from DODEA.

When teacher misconduct was reported to school principals and higher-ups, parents said they were kept in the dark about what action, if any, DODEA took.

When DODEA teachers were disciplined, the punishment they received was temporary and they were back teaching within months, often in the same classroom.

The stories told to Stars and Stripes by DODEA parents and former employees portray a school system mired in inertia and lacking in transparency and accountability. While abusive teachers exist in other systems, public and private, those schools answer to school boards or state departments of education.

But complaints or concerns about DODEA schools are addressed by DODEA itself, leading parents to believe they have few rights and less recourse when dealing with apparent teacher misconduct. Not even base commanders have authority over DODEA on many matters, though they may have some input.

"It's like the fox watching the hen house," said Elizabeth Wright, the mother of a special needs fourth-grader.

'Pegged him as broken'

The Wrights' son started third grade at Patch Elementary School in Stuttgart in 2017. Elizabeth and Col. Jason Wright had adopted their son from foster care when he was 3. The boy had experienced early childhood trauma and was diagnosed with anxiety but showed no significant behavioral or academic problems at his school in Texas, the Wrights said.

Their experience at the DODEA school in Stuttgart was markedly different.

Their son's third grade teacher told the Wrights he was "scary" and "the worst child" she had ever seen, the parents told Stars and Stripes. He was constantly sent out of the room and soon fell behind academically.

"They saw a black, adopted kid and pegged him as broken," Elizabeth Wright said.

In fourth grade, when the Wrights' son was put on an individualized education plan, or IEP, for an emotional disability, the alleged abuse worsened.

As part of his IEP, the Wrights' son had permission to seek a "safe space" when he felt anxious or frustrated. Usually, he would go sit in a nearby office, but his teacher shamed him for missing class time, locked him out of the classroom if he left and sometimes refused to let him leave at all, Elizabeth Wright said.

At home, their son started to call himself "a monster," she said.

Elizabeth Wright said the trauma her son experienced as a toddler left him with a fear response, where he kicks doors, pushes things onto the floor and looks out of control. This behavior is often mistaken for aggression or defiance, but he is not a threat, she said.

"We tried to inform educators (at Patch) on what trauma response or triggers look like," she said, but nothing changed and the teacher stopped communicating with the family.

The Wrights wrote to the DODEA Europe-East superintendent, asking for the school to be investigated and, when that went unheeded, filed a due process complaint alleging that the school had failed to provide their son with the fair and appropriate education he is guaranteed by law.

District officials asked the Wrights to withdraw the complaint to allow them to do the original investigation, Jason Wright said. That investigation was conducted in February; the Wrights are still waiting for the written results.

"They talked to all the people we thought they should talk to," Jason Wright said. "They drew up recommendations and plans ... of what they would do and how they would approach this, and shared parts of that with us over the phone.

"But it was not anything that we could hold in our hands," he said. "Show us in writing what you're doing, what you've done, what your next steps are. If you have to redact some of that, so be it. We're still waiting on that."

In March, the Wrights heard of another incident involving their son and filed a discrimination complaint with DODEA.

Less than a month later, DODEA closed the Wrights' case, citing, in a letter signed by DODEA Europe East Chief of Staff Louis D'Angelo, the fact that the parents had moved their child from Patch to Stuttgart Elementary School, and had "effectively removed your son from the setting where you alleged discrimination was present, thus resolving the situation without additional action required."

The Wrights were outraged.

"This isn't just about our son," Elizabeth Wright said. "We still don't know if there has been any accountability. In the end, we had to remove our son, and he's still hurt -- just because we are no longer at that school doesn't erase what happened to him."

'He was in a box'

The Balfour family had a similar experience with their son, Bryson, after moving to Germany in November 2017.

The family thought Bryson's tears and anxiety were caused by the stress of moving overseas and changing schools. But a paraprofessional who worked with Bryson tipped them off that there might be a deeper, more specific reason.

Special education paraprofessional Erica Camacho had seen how, if Bryson wrote outside the lines, the teacher would make him erase his work and rewrite it, sometimes spending hours to get it right.

She had seen Bryson being punished for forgetting a word. She'd seen the teacher tell him to stand in a corner, facing the wall, barricaded by gym mats, sometimes for 45 minutes or more.

"He was in a box, so he couldn't look out the window or over his shoulder at what the other students were doing," said Camacho, who had worked with Bryson since the spring of 2018.

"I would come home and tell my husband ... I must be going crazy because what I was taught ... the laws that I know protect (special education) students are supposed to apply no matter where we are," Camacho said. "But no one seems to be saying anything,"

Bryson's saga hit its nadir last year for Camacho. As Bryson quietly sang a song in class to soothe himself and stop his tears, Camacho recalled how the teacher said to her, "Look at him. He's crazy."

"He heard her, and he told her, 'I'm not crazy,' and started hysterically crying," Camacho said.

"He was crying so much, he had snot coming down his face," she added. That's when the teacher held a mirror in front of the boy and told him he looked disgusting, Camacho said.

"I was, like, no way this is normal. I almost started to cry," she said.

Camacho said she didn't trust the principal enough to report the incident to her, so she encouraged the family to ask Bryson specific questions about his day.

Substantiated abuse

Soon after the incident, Family Advocacy received an anonymous complaint alleging abusive behavior by Bryson's teacher. The Balfours and Camacho said they were not behind the complaint.

In late October, Family Advocacy substantiated emotional abuse claims against Bryson's teacher, according to a copy of a memorandum, which the Balfours shared with Stars and Stripes.

Bryson and another boy were moved to a different classroom. The teacher was placed on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted. She returned to the same classroom after the investigation was completed but was later moved to a different school, the Balfours said.

In November, the Balfours asked DODEA to conduct an internal investigation into what happened in their son's classroom and how the school handled the incident.

At first, there was no response.

But four months later, the base commander of U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Col. Neal Corson, heard about the Balfours' issues with the school and pledged to push for an investigation. At the same time, however, he stressed he did not have the authority to tell DODEA what to do.

Corson's interest in the case appeared to get things rolling, but the process soon stalled again. DODEA referred the investigation to the community superintendent, who interviewed the Balfours, Camacho and others in April. The Balfours say there has been no follow-up.

"The intent of the system is to wait you out," Edward Balfour said.

The Balfours were fed up. The family requested an early return to the States so Bryson can attend a private school that can accommodate his needs when he starts middle school in the fall.

"Even though we heard great things about the middle school (in Stuttgart), it's still the same school system, the same leadership," Candace Balfour said. "They've lost our respect and trust. I don't want to put our family through that another year."

Systemic differences

In the last three years, 65 DODEA teachers have been terminated. Because DODEA says it cannot go into detail about individual cases, and because, as federal employees, DODEA teachers are protected by strict privacy laws, it's impossible to report how many of those teachers were fired for abusive behavior toward children.

Information about teacher disciplinary actions is more transparent in public school districts stateside.

The Texas Education Agency, for example, lists on its website teachers who have been suspended, reprimanded, surrendered their teaching license or had it revoked, or been the subject of other disciplinary action.

In Pennsylvania, the public can submit educator misconduct complaints to the department of education using an online form, and disciplinary action taken against teachers is published on the department's website.

Stars and Stripes chose not to name the teachers described in this story for now, because they are not public figures and because not all had been formally investigated by DODEA or charged by law enforcement -- though the parents and other educators interviewed said that a lack of proper investigation is at the heart of the problem.

Three of the DODEA teachers described in this story were contacted for comment. Two did not respond while Bryson's former teacher referred inquiries to Jan Freeman, a lawyer at the Federal Education Association, the largest DODEA teacher's union.

Freeman said that while she cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, FEA supports the process "and we are confident that the facts will emerge."

In the 2018-19 school year, there were six reported allegations of child abuse involving DODEA employees in Europe, DODEA spokesman Will Griffin said. He did not say how many of those allegations were substantiated.

Some in the Stuttgart community say that number is too low, and that abuse often goes unreported because employees are afraid to speak up.

Griffin said that DODEA employees are required to take action if they become aware of abusive conduct.

"We do not tolerate abusive conduct of any kind in our schools, regardless of who the perpetrator may be," Griffin said, adding that "any employee who becomes aware of abusive conduct has a legal and ethical obligation to act, whether it is in a reporting or investigative capacity."

Judy Rae Merhar, a former long-term substitute at Hainerberg Elementary School in Wiesbaden, met that obligation after a kindergarten teacher reportedly told a black boy he looked like "an ape without a brain in his body." The same teacher routinely punished kids by making them stand alone in the bathroom or outside the classroom.

Merhar documented the educator's behavior for nearly three months last year and filed a report with the principal.

The teacher was removed from the classroom for the last two weeks of school but returned last fall.

Merhar said no one interviewed her or any of the parents about the teacher's conduct, but the school did ask Merhar whether she would be satisfied if they put the teacher through counseling and training.

No, she replied, that wouldn't go far enough. "She should not be teaching any children."

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