EXCLUSIVE: DA confirms criminal investigation into student abuse.
By Jeff Chirico
ALPHARETTA, GA (CBS ATLANTA) - Fulton County School System superintendent Dr. Robert Avossa said he is "concerned" about allegations of a cover-up of abuse within the district.
He spoke with CBS Atlanta on Friday morning, a day after Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard confirmed that a criminal investigation has been launched into student abuse at Hopewell Middle School in Milton.
According to a district investigative report from 2007, school system employees knew but didn't stop former teacher Melanie Pickens from abusing students from 2002 to 2007. Avossa said he will make changes.
"We will work with staff on that, and if there are instances where folks didn't act appropriately we will hold them accountable," said Avossa.
Avossa, who was not the superintendent when the abuse occurred, said it is now policy for parents to be notified when children are abused inside the school by another student or staff member.
The announcement of a criminal investigation comes as CBS Atlanta News continued to ask Tough Questions about the abuse allegedly covered up by the Fulton County School System.
In a statement, Howard said, "Let me first begin by applauding CBS Atlanta's continued reporting of this matter. There is nothing more important to my office than the protection of children and holding accountable those responsible for bringing harm to our most innocent victims."
Howard continued to say Fulton County Schools and Roswell Police Departments are jointly investigating allegations of abuse by former special education teacher Melanie Pickens dating back to 2006.
Lisa Williams, the mother of a special needs child reportedly abused, got emotional when told of the criminal investigation.
"That's what I wanted," said Williams to reporter Jeff Chirico, when he broke the news to her.
Williams said she believes Pickens, and others within the district who knew but didn't stop the abuse, should be prosecuted.
Alex Williams, now 18, was reportedly shoved, cursed at and isolated by Pickens at Hopewell Middle School in Milton during the 2006-07 school year.
Lisa Williams, who said she learned of the abuse from another student's mother in 2010, testified that the district never told her about the abuse. Williams also said the district blocked out her son's name in a copy of the 2007 investigative report she requested. The district also withheld other records, she said.
"I was totally unprepared for the corruption. I feel they covered it up in an intentional attempt to prevent me from finding any of this out," said Williams, during a due process hearing in administrative court Wednesday.
The Williams family is requesting that the Fulton County School System pay for Alex's future education costs estimated at $2.5 million. "I will not send him back there," said Williams referring to Fulton County Schools.
An investigation was commissioned by the Fulton County Board of Education in 2007 to explore possible abuse of a student, Jake Marshall. The 29-page investigative report concluded that former special education teacher Melanie Pickens apparently mistreated six students.
The Fulton County School System has come under fire for failing to tell parents that their children were named as abuse victims in the report which called Pickens' actions "possibly criminal."
On Tuesday, Fulton County School Board President Linda Schultz testified she did not know more than one student was abused by a special education teacher, because she didn't read the investigative report.
Schultz testified that she did not know other children were abused, until she saw news coverage about it in 2011.
Williams' attorney, Chris Vance, said the school system should have notified police of the abuse. However, district officials did not notify police until 2009 when it forwarded information to its own police department. Fulton County school police captain Felipe Usury testified Tuesday he was instructed by his superior to close the case without forwarding the information to the district attorney's office to determine if laws were broken.
Educators testified Monday about student abuse they allegedly witnessed at the hands of Pickens.
Several former and current employees of the Fulton County School System told similar stories of abuse and neglect including hitting, kicking and shoving special needs students.
According to testimony Monday, Williams was shoved often by Pickens during the 2006-07 school year. Williams, who was 14 at the time, does not communicate verbally, and has trouble walking.
Teaching assistant Denise Baugh testified Pickens burped, passed gas and shook her buttocks and breasts in students' faces.
Several educators said they reported abuse to then principal Frances M. Boyd who ignored it.
In a bombshell admission, a coordinator for special education services for the Fulton County School System admitted that administration knew Pickens was abusing students for years. Pettes said she had recommended administration not renew Pickens' contract after her first year as a Fulton County employee in 2002. Pettes said Pickens had trouble handling the students.
The Fulton County School System investigated the abuse of student Jake Marshall in 2007 after a teacher contacted the Division of Family and Children Services. Marshall, now 19, is nonverbal and has trouble walking.
While being restrained May 21, 2007, Jake defecated and smeared feces on his body and the chair in an attempt to clean himself, Marshall's mother, Judy, said.
The incident led the Fulton County Board of Education to launch the investigation.
Pickens resigned from Fulton County Schools on July 25, 2007, five days after the school system completed the investigative report that confirmed allegations of abuse.
The report indicated the abuse occurred between 2004 and 2007. More than 10 teachers and school staffers gave statements to investigators, indicating they witnessed Pickens "hitting Jake on the back of the head." Statements also revealed Pickens kicked, cursed, pushed and regularly restrained Jake in a seclusion room for long periods of time.
"The investigation determined that the May 21, 2007, incident was the most recent occurrence in an extensive pattern of inappropriate and possibly criminal conduct Pickens subjected upon her special education students," the report read.
"I never anticipated that school would damage him," Alex's mother, Lisa Williams, said.
Doctors diagnosed Alex with post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving Pickens' class.
"He refuses to say the word 'happy,' and that was one of his first words," said Williams.
Attorney Vance said school officials should have reported the abuse to police long before 2009.
"It is a crime not to report abuse of disabled students," Vance said.
Police have not charged anyone with a crime.
Vance said she believes the abuse and cover-up is symptomatic of a culture of abuse.
"It was tolerated, accepted and condoned. It is a complete lack of concern for children with special needs," Vance said.
Marshall said she settled with Fulton County Schools but could not talk about the agreement. The Fulton County School System would also not release the terms of the settlement, despite several requests by CBS Atlanta News.
Stay with CBS Atlanta for updates on this story.