The head of the Harford County teachers union said Wednesday that the alleged abuses of autistic students revealed in an investigation of a Bel Air elementary school show that the district needs to expand training beyond special-education teachers.
"All of our staff need to have high-quality, ongoing professional development to be able to do their jobs effectively," said Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association. "At times, that has been lacking."
The alleged abuses were documented last year by the Maryland Disability Law Center. Attorneys said nine students in one class at Hickory Elementary School suffered "pervasive and long-standing neglect" and that teachers and support staff used "aversive behavior intervention techniques."
After the findings were published by The Baltimore Sun, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said Wednesday that he was "very concerned about any abuse or neglect of special needs students."
Glassman expressed support for Harford County Superintendent Barbara P. Canavan. She took over as interim superintendent in June 2013 and became superintendent in February 2014, about three months before the abuses are alleged to have occurred.
"The superintendent of schools has indicated that she has addressed the situation at Hickory Elementary School, and I support her doing what is necessary to ensure that these precious children are educated in a safe and nurturing environment," Glassman said.
County school board members contacted Wednesday declined to comment.
County Councilman Chad Shrodes represents the area where Hickory Elementary is located.
"This is kind of a shocking new topic that kind of blew me away," Shrodes said. "If these allegations are true, it's horrendous to treat students in this manner."
"Obviously, we need to do a better job of finding people to work in the autism program and we have to do a better job training them," he said. "I will continue to advocate for these students as best I can."
Leslie Margolis, managing attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center, said the problems she found reflected a lack of training, resources and accountability on all levels of the school and the district. She said school officials cooperated with the investigation.
Margolis began reviewing Hickory last summer after receiving phone calls. An anonymous letter was sent to parents alleging mistreatment of children. The nonprofit Maryland Disability Law Center is designated by the state to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect involving people with disabilities.
Attorneys reported that teachers and staff sprayed students in the face with water to quell poor behavior. Attorneys also found that students were threatened with a rolling pin and markers. Autistic students can have adverse reactions to loud noises or potent smells.
Basic rights granted to students under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were violated, the attorneys reported.
Margolis said staff members were unqualified for their positions working with autistic students.
County school officials declined to comment on specific allegations, citing student privacy. But in written responses included in the report, they vowed reforms, including more training and professional development for staff, and compensating students for educational services they were denied.
Harford schools spokeswoman Jillian Lader said the district expanded its autism programs from three to six this school year, which reduced class size and gave students more opportunity for "inclusive learning."
Officials also moved the Hickory autism program into the main school building, and the county is working with two board-certified specialists as consultants.
Baltimore Sun Media Group editor Ted Hendricks contributed to this article.