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Clearwater teacher arrested, accused of abusing two special needs students

CLEARWATER — A Skycrest Elementary School teacher was arrested Thursday on charges that she abused two special needs students at the school over a period of at least two months, Clearwater police said.

Melanie Jo Fox, 44, of Clearwater is accused of pulling a 6-year-old girl's hair, kicking her, hitting her with a book and binding her hands with duct tape.

Police say she also pushed down an 8-year-old boy and bound his hands with a rubber band.

Fox was charged with two counts of child abuse and remained in the Pinellas County Jail Thursday night on $20,000 bail.

Clearwater public safety spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said Fox's arrest came after interviews with the teacher and students. There's no indication other students have been abused, but the investigation is ongoing, Watts said.

It's unclear how the alleged abuse could have continued for two months without being discovered.

Donna Winchester, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas County School District, said Fox began working for the district as an hourly teacher in 2004 and was hired full time in 2005.

"The district had moved Ms. Fox to a non-student site earlier this week following an investigation, which is still under way," Winchester said in a statement.

The case is the latest of several in the Tampa Bay area in which school employees are accused of harming or neglecting special needs students, and it raises questions about the training and supervision of special needs teachers.

In October in Hillsborough County, 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome, wandered from her Riverview Middle School gym class and drowned in a nearby retention pond.

In January, Bella Herrera, a 7-year-old student at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview who had a neuromuscular disorder, choked while riding a school bus. Neither Bella's bus aide nor the bus driver called 911, instead calling a supervisor and the child's mother. Bella later died.

The incidents led to protests and lawsuits and prompted some Hillsborough County School Board members to call for reforms.

This week, video was released that appeared to show Hillsborough County bus driver Stephanie Wilkerson pushing an 8-year-old autistic girl off the school bus in September, causing the student to fracture an ankle. Wilkerson faces a charge of aggravated child abuse. She pleaded not guilty.

Schools are responsible for protecting all children from physical and sexual abuse, said attorney Lance Block, previous chair of former Gov. Charlie Crist's Commission on Disabilities. That need is more acute with special needs children.

"These students often can't communicate, can't express that they're being abused," said Block, whose 24-year-old daughter has Down syndrome. "Principals and teachers have to constantly look for and report anything suspicious. Otherwise you have tragic situations like this that can leave life-long scars."

Educators who serve disabled students are supposed to swiftly take action if, say, a child describes any uncomfortable interactions or develops bruises, scratches or a sudden attitude shift, Block said.

"Children are trained to obey and love their teachers," Block said. "If a teacher abuses them, how are they supposed to trust anyone with authority after that?"

Fairly or not, fingers are often pointed at school principals when a student is harmed at school. This is not the first time that Skycrest Elementary School principal Angelean Bing has faced a crisis of trust in her school.

She was principal at Fairmount Park Elementary School in St. Petersburg when a 5-year-old student was arrested and put in handcuffs at school — a scene that made national news.

Bing initially came under fire when a 6-year-old boy ran away from Fairmount and was seriously injured when he was hit by a car. An investigation showed Bing was doing her job supervising other children when the boy darted away.

A man who answered the door at Bing's home Thursday would not comment.

No one answered the door at Fox's apartment Thursday or answered the phone.

Fox had no prior discipline on her record, according to school officials, but there are indications she has had a troubled home life, according to court documents and interviews with neighbors.

Court records show she has taken legal actions against Denny Peterson, 52, the father of her two children, claiming failure to pay child support and domestic violence.

"This is very hard on us," said Peterson, who was out of town for his son's Army graduation. "My main concern is taking care of our kids."

Times education reporter Cara Fitzpatrick and news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Brittany Alana Davis at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353 or Danielle Paquette at dpaquette@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4224.

Clearwater teacher arrested, accused of abusing two special needs students 03/21/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 7:37am]
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