An Effingham County teacher accused of abusing her special education students will have to wait several weeks to learn if she can continue to teach.
Sara Hart, a teacher at Sand Hill Elementary spent two days in a Professional Standards Commission hearing at the Effingham County Judicial Complex.
Hart has been accused of slapping a child, shoving a child’s head into a wall, yelling and screaming at children, tying a child’s leg to a chair, improperly restraining a child with a weighted blanket. The accusations were brought to officials in the spring of 2008 while Hart was a teacher at Blandford Elementary School.
Dr. Colleen Webb, former coordinator for exceptional children, said she looked into the allegations against Hart.
“(You) don’t want to believe that of anybody,” Webb said.
Webb said in her interactions with Hart the teacher was sweet and gentle in speech, and the allegations were unexpected.
When asked why she investigated, given her interactions with Hart, Webb said if one professional had come to her with concerns, it would have been enough. But there were many professionals voicing concerns. A professional development plan was created for Hart to follow.
Webb said after an incident with a child, and the appearance that not all of the suggestions from the plan were being implemented, Hart was removed for the “protection of both sides” and sent to work with another teacher.
Webb was asked if it is ever acceptable to restrain a child, she said only if the child is in danger of hurting him or herself or others.
Superintendent Randy Shearouse testified that he wrote a letter of reprimand for Hart.
In the letter, he stated that there was a lack of good judgment that caused concern, and her actions were not the actions of a professional educator. He also identified a letter he wrote to the Professional Standards Commission stating that Hart had made improvements, and if her current course continued she would be offered a contract in the 2009-10 school year.
He said if he thought Hart was abusing children he would have recommended that she be terminated.
Alan Lowe, Hart’s attorney, called multiple teachers, paraprofessionals, and principals to tell their experiences with Hart. All were asked if they had ever witnessed Hart yell or abuse her students. All said they had not.
“It’s hurtful,” Hart said of the allegations. “You get up and you go to school every day, and it’s challenging. It’s not an easy job. There’s not a concrete answer for everything that takes place in the classroom during the day.”
Hart said there were no concerns brought to her by any therapists or paraprofessionals prior to March 2008.
Lowe had Hart explain how she came to be the teacher working teacher’s class in February 2008, when the other teacher was on maternity leave.
Hart said school administrators told her they had not been able to find a certified teacher to take over the teacher going on maternity leave, so they were going to put the two special education classes together.
Hart said there was not much insight given to the two teachers on the best way to merge the classes. Hart said she and Patsy Johnson, the teacher about to begin her maternity leave then, worked on lesson plans together and arranged her classroom together in preparation for Johnson’s students to move into Hart’s class.
When the classes were merged, Hart had nine students in her classroom and two paraprofessionals working with her.
Lowe asked Hart if she asked for the responsibility of the merged classes. She said she did not ask for it, she was asked to take on the responsibility.
“It was difficult,” she said. “The same group of children that we met the spring before to separate, because we knew it was too difficult to have them in one class, we put back together. Children we knew we needed to have two classrooms for, but yet they were all put back into one classroom. Right away, we knew it was going to be difficult.”
Lowe asked Hart if she tied one of her students to a table. Hart said the hugger was used to prevent the student from rocking back and falling over.
“It was not a punishment or a restraint,” she said.
Lowe said there were allegations that she used a weighted blanket on a student at naptime. She said the blanket would be used to calm a child to help them rest and fall asleep.
It was alleged that she used the blanket on a student, and the student screamed. Hart said she did not recall that, and that she never used the blanket in an inappropriate manner.
Lowe said there was an allegation that Hart forced a student to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with nothing to drink, and he vomited.
“At lunch time, the only thing that I had to motivate these children with to eat was their milk,” Hart said. “They take a bite, and have a sip. (The student) had just a little bit of milk left and was eating his sandwich. I was trying to get him to take a bite and take a sip. He wanted to do that on his own, he got aggravated, and he did vomit.”
She said she sent a note home asking that the student always had two juices in his lunchbox from that point forward.
Hart said she learned she must be more careful of the tone of her voice and communicates well with the people she works with.
Rebecca Mick of the state attorney general’s office said there will be two weeks for the attorneys to receive the transcripts of the proceedings.
Both attorneys will then have two weeks to submit their finding to the judge.
The judge will make a recommendation but the 18-member committee will determine if Hart’s teaching certificate will be suspended.