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Hernando elementary teacher pulled from classroom over handling of autistic student

BROOKSVILLE — A teacher at Eastside Elementary School has been pulled from the classroom while state and school district officials investigate allegations that she pinched the cheeks of an autistic student to get the student's attention, possibly on more than one occasion.

Lisa Studer, 49, is accused of grabbing the boy's cheeks and pulling him toward her, according to a Sheriff's Office report that quotes a state Department of Children and Families abuse report, which was not immediately available. "Red marks were left on both sides of (the student's) face."

Studer could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Sheriff's Office found that criminal allegations of abuse were unfounded. But DCF and the school district are still investigating, officials from each agency confirmed Thursday.

An unidentified adult female witness reported the incident to school officials.

The woman said she witnessed Studer "place her thumb on one cheek and her forefinger on the other cheek and squeeze (the student's) face," the deputy's report said. "She redirected towards her own face. It is believed that this was in an attempt to get attention due to his autism."

The incident occurred in December, the sheriff's report said, and "possibly occurred more then once."

The investigating deputy spoke to the student, who was born in 2004, and his mother. The mother was unaware of the allegations and said the boy hasn't shown any evidence of abuse. The boy "could not advise of any incidents in which the teacher has laid hands on him," according to the sheriff's report.

Studer told investigators she could not recall grabbing the student.

"She also advised that she does not put her hands on the children in any way for discipline reasons," the deputy wrote.

Studer is working in the school's front office until the district's inquiry is completed, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

Studer began working with the district in 1999. Her record remained blemish-free until March 2009, when she was the target of a similar investigation while working as an exceptional education teacher at Deltona Elementary in Spring Hill.

Studer faced allegations that she forced students' heads down onto desks with her hand and forcibly held at least one student's hands, according a investigation report in her personnel file. At least two paraprofessionals said they saw Studer hold down students' heads on desks, the report shows. One told investigators that a female student refused to put her head down when asked by Studer.

"Studer then told the student, 'I will help you,' and proceeded to hold (the student's) head down on her desk for a few minutes," the paraprofessional wrote in a statement. "While (the student's) head was held down (in a) sideways position (the student) screamed "STOP, LET ME GO."

At least two parents complained they had not been informed their children were restrained, according to the report.

Witnesses also said Studer allowed at least one student to remain on the toilet for periods of 15 minutes or more.

Studer said she only guided students' heads and hands and did not use force.

DCF and the Sheriff's Office investigated and determined there was no abuse. But Studer was given a written reprimand for violating the state code of ethics and professional conduct by failing to properly use crisis prevention intervention restraints, and for failing to inform administrators when students were restrained. She was reassigned to another classroom and required to take a CPI course.

Studer was transferred to Eastside, in the Hill 'n Dale subdivision, a few weeks later, records show.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando elementary teacher pulled from classroom over handling of autistic student 05/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 7:51pm]

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