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Not long after special-education teacher Rasheeda Swain, 42, began working at Valdosta High School, she saw another teacher twist the wrists of physically and mentally disabled students to “make them stand up and walk.” Swain reprimanded the teacher and reported his conduct to a supervisor. But the abuse Swain observed not only continued, but escalated. Throughout the 2011-2012 school year, Swain witnessed multiple incidents of abuse: severely disabled students improperly restrained in wheelchairs, students locked screaming and banging on the walls in dark bathrooms for as long as an hour, a student sitting in class with an unnoticed broken jaw. Swain, a teacher with 14 years experience in special education, reported what she saw up the chain of command at her school as well as to a district official and to a federal agency investigating a facility where many of her students lived; Swain’s actions followed regulations that require teachers to report child abuse and neglect. Yet, she says, nothing was done to stop the mistreatment of students. Instead, in March 2012, even though Swain had received stellar performance reviews up to that point, the school principal told her he was not going to renew her teaching contract. “It was an irritant to them that I kept reporting these things,” says Swain. “I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t protect the kids, who are so sweet and vulnerable and can’t do anything at all to protect themselves.” 10 | KNOW • Volume 12 Issue 1 Once let go from Valdosta, Swain was unable to find another Georgia teaching job — a major stressor for a single mother supporting two children. The school’s nonrenewal for unspecified reasons kept her from being hired, Swain says; the school also didn’t return reference calls from prospective employers. Ultimately, Swain was forced to move her family out of the state in order to find another position. Swain sought the help of the Georgia Association of Educators, which provided her with attorneys who then filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf, alleging wrongful termination. Late last year, the suit was settled in Swain’s favor — a judgment of $128,750, representing back pay for Swain and legal costs for GAE. Plus, most important for Swain, the settlement required Valdosta to remove the nonrenewal from Swain’s employment record. “I’m very happy that my record was cleared; I feel a huge relief about that,” says Swain. “I can say I’ve never been nonrenewed.” GAE General Counsel Mike McGonigle says he believes “it’s unprecedented in Georgia for a judge to enter an order vacating a nonrenewal.” Additionally, says Craig Goodmark, Swain’s GAE network attorney, the case is a wake-up call concerning the retaliation that teachers can face when they follow mandatory reporting guidelines. “I think the settlement is an important step forward in protecting those teachers who are on the front lines working each day to ensure that Georgia students are being kept safe and healthy in school.” Goodmark would like to see Georgia’s mandatory child abuse reporting statute modified to include a non-retaliation clause — a whistle-blower shield to protect teachers from following the law in reporting suspected abuse and neglect. “Rasheeda is an example of a great Georgia educator,” says Goodmark. “She put herself out to do the hardest job we have, to work with kids with severe disabilities. She wasn’t somebody looking to file a lawsuit; she wasn’t somebody looking to make a name for herself, and she still is not. She is just committed to trying to serve kids with disabilities the best way she knows how and the way that is best practice. For her to be subjected to this type of retaliation is telling of how teachers are being treated in Georgia, and that’s why it was so important she made the good choice to be in a union, so we could get to this issue and be able to help.” Swain says Goodmark and her other GAE attorney, Jonathan Zimring, “saved my life” and that she’s grateful GAE paired her with attorneys with specialeducation expertise. But she remains troubled by evidence raised in the course of her lawsuit that shows administrators did not report the abuse she reported to them, and she says she is worried about her former students in Valdosta. “I’m very disillusioned about why this happened in the first place,” says Swain. “I can’t understand why they wouldn’t trust me and protect the kids. That’s what we’re there for.” Valdosta special-ed teacher fired for reporting abuse wins settlement by Lorna Collier


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