CHARLOTTE, NC – Robin Johnson had a preferred technique for disciplining some of her special school students: According to a recent federal lawsuit, she dropped first and second graders into a trash can or trash, and then forcibly held them there when they struggled to escape.
The Statesville teacher selected one boy in particular, Gage Andrews, based on the child’s mother’s complaint:
“If he acted like trash,” Johnson would say, “she would treat him like trash.”
Advertisement – Read below
Verbal and physical abuse of Gage and other special needs students under Johnson’s care at Cloverleaf Elementary School lasted at least two years before the teacher was arrested in October 2019.
According to the complaint, school administrators from Cloverleaf’s principal to superintendent of the Iredell-Statesville Schools have not responded to warnings received from Johnson’s colleagues on the faculty at all times.
Johnson, a former school bus driver and receptionist before becoming a teacher, has been charged with two attacks on a disabled person – Gage. As part of an agreement with the prosecutor in March 2020, she received deferred prosecution and is on a supervised probation until September, according to the lawsuit.
Robin Johnson did not respond to Observer emails asking for comments on this story. Now she may be in a courtroom again.
The federal complaint filed last month by Renee Andrews, Gage’s mother, alleges that the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education has been discriminating against, including violating her son’s constitutional right to education, inflicting emotional distress, and improper incarceration.
Robin Johnson, former superintendent Brady Johnson (no relationship), assistant superintendent Alvera Lesane, and Cloverleaf directors Alisha Cloer and Andrew Mehall are named as defendants.
The complaint – the second filed last fall for mistreatment of an autistic student by a Statesville school – contains a harrowing account of what allegedly went on in Johnson’s segregated classroom during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. It is also detailed that school principals do not intervene or alert parents to how their children are being treated.
Renee and Gage Andrews are not identified in the lawsuit. But she did give the observer permission to use their names, possibly to draw more attention to their story.
More than a year after Johnson’s arrest, the mother said she was still grappling with the fact that she was one of the last to find out about her son’s abuse.
“From a mother’s point of view, it broke me. It was a pain like no other, ”Andrews told the observer. “It was like being tortured. That’s the only way I can think about it. It was torture. They were kids. The stuff that was done to them was unimaginable. “
Johnson’s classroom status remains unclear. School district spokeswoman Jada Jonas told the observer that Johnson “is no longer an employee of the Iredell-Statesville Schools.” However, as of late December, she continued to be listed on the district’s website as a special education teacher at Third Creek Middle School.
School board attorney Constantine Kutteh, of Statesville, said the case had been referred to the North Carolina School Boards Trust, a risk management partner of the state’s public schools that would take on the defense.
He declined to comment further.
Johnson mistreated several students based on reports at the time of her arrest. However, according to the lawsuit, the teacher selected Gage who was diagnosed with autism and other behavioral problems.
Johnson was the boy’s first and second grade teacher. Periodically, the complaint said, she would hold him down, hold him there, and forcibly put her hand against his mouth to suppress his screams.
It also made it difficult for the boy to breathe. Gage eventually told his mother that Johnson once tried to suffocate him according to the lawsuit.
On another occasion in second grade, the lawsuit said, Gage damaged his desk during an angry outburst. Johnson left him for the rest of the school day. When the child came home, his shirt was wet with tears, according to the complaint. When the mother asked Johnson what happened, Johnson told her that she was teaching the boy a lesson on respecting school property.
In another incident included in the complaint, Gage came home with grease in his hair, badly stained clothes, and no explanation from Johnson or the school. Johnson eventually told the mother that she “accidentally” dumped her cabbage greens lunch on Gage’s head after heating it in the microwave.
Renee Andrews, an operating room nurse, says her son’s skin was scalded.
The family lawyer, Stacey Gahagan, of Durham, asked if the incident was unintentional and said, “It seems to fit a pattern of abuse.”
“It is certainly questionable,” said Gahagan, a former headmaster whose legal practice specializes in representing students with disabilities. “With everything else that has happened, it becomes much harder to believe ‘purely by chance’.”
According to the complaint, Johnson told Gage that his mother “wanted her to hold him back” to control his anger.
Instead, his behavior deteriorated. Just weeks after his third year, Gage was transferred home.
“You knew something was wrong, but you didn’t know what was wrong. His behavior has changed drastically, ”Andrews recalled. “He didn’t want to go to school, but he wouldn’t tell us why. Everything that we would question in school, they always had an answer.
“It was just an ordeal. You’d see things and you didn’t know why. “
Another case of abuse
Last October, the family of a 7-year-old student with autism at Pressley Alternative School filed a lawsuit after he was handcuffed by a school official. Then he sat on the boy for more than 30 minutes and regularly taunted him while his teacher watched a video of the incident. The officer said he saw the boy spit in a classroom.
The family lawyer, Alex Heroy, called the official’s body camera video of the incident “one of the worst I’ve ever seen”.
Heroy described the allegations in the Johnson complaint as “pretty awful stuff”.
“Children don’t belong in the trash can,” Heroy said in an email to the observer. “The allegations show not only systemic, institutional errors in relation to special education, but sometimes also contempt for children with increased behavior and mental health needs.”
According to Gahagan, the two abuse cases suggest that there is a bigger problem in training people to see these disabled students as people.
The veil of secrecy around Johnson’s classroom was lifted in September 2019 when the parents of another former Johnson learned about the teacher’s disciplinary techniques.
This family went to a school counselor who reported the allegations to then Superintendent Brady Johnson and the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office. According to the complaint, Brady Johnson, who retired in June, and his staff did not investigate the complaints, remove Robin Johnson from her classroom or report the allegations as required by law.
Robin Johnson was arrested a month later.
In her petition for damages, Renee Andrews says that some of the money she receives will be used towards the cost of psychological care, the fee still needed due to the abuse he received. She says her goal in the lawsuit is awareness rather than financial gain.
“Every time you turn around, an autistic child is being molested, be it at school, on the bus or wherever,” she said. “If this case can change it for a child and find a way that is better for those children, then let’s do something. You deserve a shot in life. “
Gage turned 10 in December. After being out of the classroom for 15 months, his mother recently enrolled him in a private school outside of Iredell County that specializes in teaching children with autism. Although his settling into the classroom has had some problems, Andrews says, her son has already shown signs that he can trust his teachers again.
“I can actually see him getting happy. You can see the change, ”Andrews said before recounting a previous conversation with Gage – the boy she calls” my hero. “
“There was one day I was crying and upset and I said to him, ‘They didn’t break you,'” “Andrews recalled.
“And he looked at me and knew what I was talking about and he said, ‘No, I was lucky.'”
© 2021 The Charlotte Observer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC