BLACKSTONE — A special needs teacher and an aide employed by the Blackstone-Millville Regional School District have been placed on administrative leave pending a criminal investigation into allegations they were responsible for physically abusing four children in their classroom who suffer from severe developmental disabilities.
The mother of one of the children at the center of the probe, who asked not to be identified, named the teacher as Michele F. Sherwin, 58, of Franklin. Another parent identified the aide as Tonya Morin, a woman from Millville. All four children are between seven and 10 years old, the parents say.
The mother said the allegations are that her child's hands and feet were restrained for up to a half-hour at a time as punishment for the child's nose-picking. Other allegations are that the child was slapped, shoved or poked with excessive force, sometimes as an inducement to walk more quickly.
In past school years, the woman said her child had come home from Sherwin's class with clothing reeking of dried urine or unexplained bruises. Like all four children in Sherwin's tiny class, her child either cannot speak or has severely impaired short-term memory, so she was unable to question her child effectively about the cause of the problems. But she always gave Sherwin and her aides the benefit of the doubt, thinking it was best not to make waves in the school system.
“I think my big mistake looking back now is that I never went over her head,” the woman said. “I tried to keep the peace with that teacher because I thought it was the best thing for my child.”
The Call also learned of the probe from the parent of another child in Sherwin's classroom who may have been abused. This parent, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that what allegedly happened to the child was “a pretty disturbed” act involving the way the child was restrained. The parent declined to elaborate, however, saying it might serve to identify the youngster.
The parent said the child might have suffered pain as a result of what was done, but it's difficult to know for sure because the child is incapable of speaking.
“It's sad and it's scary,” this parent said. “These kids are non-verbal and defenseless. They can't say anything.”
Schools Supt. Kimberly Shaver-Hood declined comment on the situation, saying it was a confidential personnel matter. Lawyer Harold Gould Jr., the School Committee's legal counsel, and Charles Singleton, chairman of the Blackstone-Millville Regional School Committee, followed suit.
“It's the state law, I can't say anything about it,” said Singleton. “I'm not happy about it. I don't want it to look like we're hiding something, but it's the law.”
But the first parent interviewed by The Call said she received a letter from Shaver-Hood on Sept. 30 indicating that new classroom arrangements had been made for her child. The letter says the “duties and responsibilities of your child's teacher and one of her aides will be performed by other personnel” at the JFK Maloney Complex.
The letter did not identify the teacher or the aide in question or explain any of the circumstances for their apparent removal. The woman said the letter did little but confuse and alarm her, so she called Shaver-Hood to ask for details, but the superintendent declined to provide them.
The parent says she does not know whether the allegations are true, but the silent treatment from administrators upset her deeply because Shaver-Hood appeared “to be protecting that teacher, not the children.”
About a day after she spoke to Shaver-Hood, the parent said Detective Wayne Mowry of the Blackstone Police Department told her by phone that a police investigation was under way into allegations of abuse and neglect involving Sherwin and Morin. It was the first time anyone gave her a reason for the personnel shuffle in her child's classroom and the parent says, “I have to tell you, my heart sank a little. I was appalled...”
A couple of days later, Michael Thurston, an investigator with the state Department for Children and Families, came to her home and gave her details of allegations Sherwin and the aide were facing in connection with her child.
Thurston could not be reached Monday, but the woman said the investigator told her DCF was looking into other allegations of abuse and neglect involving all four children in Sherwin's classroom.
The four children had been with Sherwin and the same three aides for several years at the Millville Elementary School, on Berthelette Way in Millville, according to the parent. This year, she said, the whole class was transferred to the JFK Maloney Complex in Blackstone. Sherwin was still the teacher, but two of the aides were replaced at the beginning of the school year.
The woman, who said she has since been in contact with the parents of all the other children involved in the probe, say the allegations are believed to have begun with the new aides.
The woman said she does not know the specific allegations involving the other children, whom she declined to identify. She said, however, the children in the class are all profoundly developmentally impaired. One suffers from autism, another from Down Syndrome. One was injured as a child, another has a rare genetic disorder. One is in a wheelchair.
Because some of the allegations date back to Sherwin's days at Millville Elementary School, the woman said the police departments in both Blackstone and Millville are running parallel investigations. Blackstone's Detective Mowry did not return telephone calls yesterday, but Millville Police Chief Ronald Landry confirmed that his department launched an abuse investigation this week.
Landry declined to identify the target of the investigation, but he said, “The Millville police did receive information from the Blackstone-Milllville school administration regarding a possible incident.”
Landry said the police are currently not at liberty to release details, but he said, “We're going to conduct a thorough investigation to see whether there was any criminal misconduct, and if there was that's what we're going to report.”
The Call left a message for Sherwin on her telephone answering machine yesterday, but she did not return the call. Efforts to locate Morin were not successful.