When Stuart Chaifetz sent his 10-year-old son to New Jersey’s Horace Mann Elementary School wearing a wire, he couldn’t have predicted the audio he would uncover.
The wiring came as a reaction to accusations from the school that his son Akian was having “violent outbursts,” including hitting his teacher and teacher’s aide — claims that Chaifetz says are simply against his son’s “sweet and non-violent” nature.
To Chaifetz’s shock, Akian, a student with Autism, returned with a tape containing hours of verbal and emotional abuse from his classroom aide and teacher, which the father documented and published in an emotional YouTube video.
The Feb. 17 recording started with Akian’s aide and the teacher, whom Collingswood Patch identifies as Jodi Sgouros and Kelly Altenburg, respectively. The two engage in inappropriate conversations, like joking about their alcohol abuse and sex lives in front of their students — all of whom suffer from conditions that prevent them from relaying the conversations to their parents.
“You would never get away with talking about your alcohol abuse the night before if this was a mainstream class,” Chaifetz says in the YouTube video. “And that’s the point, isn’t it? They knew none of those boys could go home and tell their parents that the person who ran that class was under the influence of alcohol and was throwing up.”
As the tape continues, the teacher and teacher’s aide’s behavior turned from inappropriate to cruel.
“Who are you talking to, nobody?” Altenburg asked Akian, who sometimes talks to himself. “Knock it off,” Sgouros chimed in.
According to the video, Akian became upset, and starting crying.
“Go ahead and scream because guess what? You’re going to get nothing until your mouth is shut,” the classroom official is heard saying. “Shut your mouth.”
Due to his son’s anxiety, Chaifetz, who is divorced from his wife, has to reassure Akian that he will return to his care after the boy spends time with his mother.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said, describing the reassurance ritual in the video.
When Akian asked Sgouros for the same reassurance, however, she answered “no,” sending him into an emotional panic.
Instead of compassion, however, the teacher’s aide responded with cruelty.
“Oh Akian, you are a bastard,” Sgouros said, according to the audio recording.
Although Sgouros, the classroom aide, was fired after the father presented the recording to school district officials, Altenburg remains employed, but in a different classroom.
“That my son’s teacher was not fired and still works in the school district is an outrage I am not willing to allow to pass in silence,” Chaifetz said in an email to the Huffington Post.
“She betrayed my son and caused him great pain. If some union rule or HR regulation has allowed her to keep her job, then the law needs to be changed so that the next time a teacher bullies a child, especially one with special needs, they will be immediately fired. For me to do nothing would mean I was treating my son with as much disrespect as they had,” he added.
An online petition on Change.org and a Facebook page calling for the teacher’s termination have already received attention.
Susan Bastnagel, Cherry Hill Public School District spokesperson declined to comment on Altenburg’s continued employment, but told the Huffington Post that the incident is a “personnel matter that the district took seriously and handled appropriately.”
Akian’s troubling experience is not unique, nor is his father’s method of exposing believed wrongdoing in the classroom.
“I have also been stunned by how many emails I have received from people with special needs who were bullied by teachers when they were in school, and from parents who have a situation that mirrors what I went through,” Chaifetz told the Huffington Post. “These parents are desperate to find out what is happening to their child and have asked for help on how to wire them.”
Thus was the case for the parents of a special needs student at Miami Trace Middle School in Ohio, who sent their daughter to school with a hidden tape recorder last fall after the girl had repeatedly complained about teacher bullying.
The revelation was shocking: the educators on the recording called the child lazy and dumb, and forced her to run on a treadmill with increasing speed.
“Don’t you want to do something about that belly,” former teaching aide Kelley Chaffins says in the recording. “Well, evidently you don’t because you don’t do anything at home. You sit at home and watch TV.”
The girl and her father spoke to Ann Curry on the TODAY show last November, and in a tearful interview, the concerned dad touched on how the abuse had affected his daughter.
“She got to where she didn’t want to go to school,” he said, choking back tears. “She was … starting to harm herself to keep from going to school and we knew we had to do something at that point.”
Chaffins was forced to resign from her position.
Other bullying incidents like that of 15-year-old Julio Artuz at Bankbridge Regional School in New Jersey were exposed by hidden camera. Based on the uncovered video, the student asks his teacher to stop calling him “special,” to which the teacher responded, “…I will kick your a– from here to kingdom-come until I’m 80 years old.”
UPDATE 1:05 p.m.: A previous version of this article named Jodi Rosenfeld as the possible “Jodi” referred to in the video. Stuart Chaifetz has since confirmed that this is not the teacher he refers to, according to Collingswood Patch.