Harford school chief defends response to abuse allegations in Hickory Elementary's autism program

Harford school chief defends response to abuse allegations in Hickory Elementary's autism program
Harford County School Superintendent Barbara Canavan says she and her staff acted "without hesitation" when they received a complaint of alleged abuse of students with autism at Hickory Elementary School. (AEGIS FILE PHOTO / Baltimore Sun)

Harford County School Superintendent Barbara Canavan sharply defended her and her staff's response to complaints of alleged abuse of students with autism at Hickory Elementary School by teachers and support staff during the 2014-15 school year.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the Hickory situation, Canavan said she and her staff acted "without hesitation" to report what she said was a "disheartening and horrifying complaint" they received about the alleged treatment of the Hickory students with autism.


She spoke extemporaneously at the start of Monday night's Board of Education meeting, the first since a report last week by the Baltimore Sun explaining that the alleged abuses were documented last year by the Maryland Disability Law Center. Attorneys said nine students in one class at Hickory suffered "pervasive and long-standing neglect" and that teachers and support staff used "aversive behavior intervention techniques."

When the alleged actions were brought to the attention of her and her staff, Canavan said, they notified the Department of Social Services and Maryland State Department of Education.

Of the alleged abuse, she said, " was not tolerated then...and won't be tolerated in the future" and pledged that every effort will continue to be made to see that all students "are able to work in a happy and productive place."

She also said others "should not stand in judgment" of her and the school system or the staff "whom I stand in awe of" and concluded that the situation at Hickory "has been brought to a resolve."

According to the report of the Maryland Disability Law Center, HCPS officials agreed to institute new training for staff who work with students with autism, improve procedures for developing and auditing students' individualized education plans and evaluating their progress and to provide unspecified "compensatory services" to the nine affected Hickory students. HCPS also agreed to improve how it communicates with parents of students with autism and to make other programmatic changes.

After Canavan spoke for less than five minutes, two board members, Rachel Gauthier and President Nancy Reynolds praised the superintendent.

Gauthier called Canavan's comments "appropriate" and said she appreciated the superintendent's honesty, while Reynolds said: "I want to thank Mrs. Canavan and the staff for looking at the problem and rectifying it."

Minutes later, however, a parent of a student with autism at another school spoke briefly, criticizing how HCPS works with special needs students and their families.

Edward Spangler, who lives in Fallston, said he had removed his 9-year-old son from the autism program at Red Pump Elementary School near Bel Air because the son "didn't feel safe and wasn't learning anything."

Spangler, who was told by Reynolds he couldn't discuss individual schools, angrily responded that he is organizing a day-long protest at the school system headquarters in Bel Air on Wednesday and suggested parents file a class action lawsuit over their children's treatment.

"Harford County is 30 years behind the times [in special education]...I don't know where you people come from," Spangler said before abruptly leaving the board room.

He said later by telephone that his son was not one of the Hickory students but that he has been in a "prolonged dispute" with school officials to get his son a non-public placement in a program for students with autism.

"They need to bring their programs up to date," he said. "In many cases it isn't the teacher's fault; they aren't being trained to do the job properly."