CLEARWATER — It was after Christmas that 8-year-old Jason Andrade began complaining about a bully at his school.
"A big bully," his mother recalls him saying, someone who shoved him to the floor in January. Jason hit his head during that tumble and came home with a fierce headache.
Jason was born with an underdeveloped heart and attends a special class for disabled students at Skycrest Elementary School in Clearwater. Asked who was hurting him, he demurred.
It wasn't until this week that 29-year-old Clearwater resident Cotie Andrade learned the identity of the bully her son had come to fear.
It was his teacher.
"What scares me is that he trusted her," Andrade said Friday, speaking to a judge at the first court appearance of Melanie Jo Fox, 44, of Clearwater. Fox, a special-education teacher at Skycrest, was arrested this week based on accusations that she physically abused Jason Andrade and another disabled student in her class, a 6-year-old girl.
"The things that she did are unspeakable and shouldn't be done to any children, let alone a child that is physically or mentally handicapped," Cotie Andrade said. She continued, "My son tried to tell me that there was this 'big bully' in his class for the last few months. I now know who that bully was. She's standing right there."
Fox has been charged with two felony counts of child abuse. Clearwater police investigators say she pushed Jason Andrade down and bound his wrists while he was in class, and kicked the 6-year-old girl as well as binding her hands, hitting her in the head with a book and pulling her hair. The girl has not been identified by police.
On Friday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Dorothy Vaccaro ordered Fox held on $20,000 bail and said she should have no contact with minors. Vaccaro denied Fox's request to be released on her own recognizance so she could care for her two children.
Arrest affidavits state that Fox admitted to the allegations when speaking with detectives. However, Fox seemed to deny the accusations when speaking to the judge.
"I've never been in trouble in nine years in my teaching career," Fox said, speaking to the judge via closed-circuit video from the Pinellas County Jail. "I've never had a problem. These are strictly allegations."
Authorities have released few details about their investigation or the circumstances of Fox's alleged abuse of her students. But new allegations in the case came to light Friday through Cotie Andrade, who in her first remarks to the media told the Tampa Bay Times that she has serious concerns about how school officials looked out for her son and the dozen or so other students in Fox's special-needs class.
Andrade said that two teacher's aides employed in Jason's class stood by and watched Fox's abuse of students for roughly two months before reporting the teacher's actions to administrators.
And Andrade said that even after those employees made complaints about Fox on Friday, March 15, she was not removed from her classroom until Tuesday — allowing Fox a full day or more of overseeing the students she was allegedly abusing.
If true, Andrade's account of events — which she said was based on conversations with her son, child-protection workers and Skycrest Elementary School principal Angelean Bing — could carry legal implications for additional school employees, particularly the teacher's aides who allegedly observed Fox's behavior for months before acting. In Florida, as in many other states, educators are required by state law to immediately report suspicions or observations of child abuse to the state Department of Children and Families.
Andrade, while acknowledging she was grateful that Fox's co-workers eventually reported the abuse, said she could not understand why so much time elapsed before they complained.
"This could have been stopped," Andrade said. "We didn't need two months of physical and mental damage."
Pinellas schools spokeswoman Donna Winchester, citing advice from the school district's attorneys, declined to comment on the accusations against Fox on Friday or to discuss Andrade's allegation that two aides in Fox's classroom observed the abuse for months before reporting it.
Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said detectives are still investigating the incidents in Fox's classroom and she could not comment on who observed and reported the abuse, or when. Police are "still actively working the case and need to confirm who may have witnessed what," she said.
Once that process is completed, Watts said, police "will confer with the State Attorney's Office, who would ultimately determine if additional arrests or charges would apply."
Patty Houghland, a Pensacola-based advocate for the rights of the disabled and a former special-education teacher, said that while "awful," it is not entirely unexpected that aides would choose not to report inappropriate behavior by a teacher.
"They might have been scared or wanted to stay employed. And the teacher is the authority figure here," Houghland said. "They might have trusted her. But absolutely, it should have been reported."
Abuse and negligent care of special-needs students by school officials has become a disturbingly prominent issue in the Tampa Bay area.
In January of last year, a girl in a wheelchair died after she went into respiratory distress on a Hillsborough County school bus. Her parents later filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal court. In September, a school bus driver in Hillsborough County was caught on video apparently kicking a special-needs student down the stairs of a bus, leading to a charge of aggravated child abuse. In October, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome drowned in a pond behind a middle school in Riverview after wandering away from class.
Fox was hired full time by the school district in 2005. Her personnel file reflects no major concerns about her job performance, though in 2010 the district sent her a letter informing her she did not at the time meet English as a Second Language training requirements. A 2011 evaluation states she had "established a respectful classroom culture."
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.