Parents: School abuse ignored

Daniel Patrick Coffey loves any kind of music, from heavy metal to classical. He hates bowling, but likes to go swimming. He’s also got a particular affinity for plastic bags, which he likes to rub between his fingers.

Daniel, 22, was born with unexplained developmental delays and functions at the level of an 18-month-old child. Until June 2001, he was a student at Independent Hill School in Woodbridge, one of Prince William County’s three schools for special education students.

Daniel should have been a member of Independent Hill’s 2001 graduating class. Instead, his parents say they are scared to send him back to the school after they say a teacher there slapped Daniel during the 2000-2001 school year.

In a $380,000 motion for judgment filed at the Prince William County Courthouse in September, Roy and Patricia Coffey allege that Cynthia M. Hogan repeatedly struck their son while he was a student in her class. They are requesting $50,000 in judgment against Hogan.

“It’s difficult to trust people with Daniel [now],” said Patricia Coffey, Daniel’s mother. “There was no way to go back to that school.”

“The Coffeys are sorry it had to come to this,” said Stephen Farmer, the Coffeys’ attorney. “But they are adamant they want it known what happened and what could happen to others.”

The Woodbridge parents claim the school district didn’t investigate their allegations fully or in a timely fashion, and are including the district, Superintendent Edward Kelly, Independent Hill Principal James Viggiani, Ralph Abruzere, the security assistant at Independent Hill, and Don Mercer, director of risk management for Prince William County Public Schools in their suit. They are requesting an additional $330,000 against these defendants.

“This is about what a teacher did and how they tried to cover it up. All we want is acknowledgement of what happened,” said Roy Coffey. “[Hogan] wasn’t placed on any kind of administrative leave.”

“There was no apology, they didn’t acknowledge anything happened,” added Patricia Coffey.

PWCS personnel director Rick Fitzgerald confirmed that Hogan is teaching at Independent Hill School this year. Kelly said he could not comment on the lawsuit. School attorney Mary McGowan said it is PWCS policy not to discuss matters involving students or staff members that are in litigation.

In a legal answer filed in October in Prince William Circuit Court, McGowan raised defenses of good faith immunity and government sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a defense often raised by government agencies, arguing that the government cannot be sued in its own courts without its consent.

McGowan’s answer also argued the Coffeys’ concern should have been handled through “administrative remedies required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

Further, PWCS contends the Coffeys’ legal complaints “are without valid basis … but are asserted for the purposes of harassing or embarrassing [PWCS],” McGowan wrote.

With two older children who also attended PWCS, the Coffeys say they have never before had a problem with the school district’s services.

“We ran the whole gamut of services available except for English as a Second Language,” laughed Roy Coffey, describing a “gifted” 30-year-old daughter now attending graduate classes at George Mason University to become a special education teacher, and a 28-year-old son, an “average kid who played ball.”

Part of the Coffeys’ concern is that the students in Daniel’s class are mostly incapable of speech. They cannot tell caregivers what may or may not have transpired while they were outside the home.

“He can’t talk, can’t relate things. He can’t tell people what happened to him,” Farmer said. “He’s very limited in what he can do.”

“He says ‘yes,’ and he can shake his head ‘no,’ ” said Patricia Coffey.

Part of the monetary request in the suit would cover the expense of private education, compensating for Daniel missing his last year at Independent Hill. The Coffeys estimate the cost at about $15,000 for the private education necessary to transition Daniel to an adult program for mentally handicapped adults.

“They never offered an alternative placement during the investigation. He lost the whole last year, when a lot of transition occurs for the adult program,” Roy Coffey said. “He really didn’t get any of that [transition]. So now we’re going to have to hire someone.”

According to the Coffeys’ motion for judgment, a teacher’s aide at Independent Hill told Abruzere and Viggiani in September 2000 that Hogan had hit Daniel. One aide told them Daniel was struck across the face, another aide told them she witnessed an incident where Daniel was hit in the chest hard enough to be heard across the classroom.

The Coffeys say no action was taken and they were not informed until a teacher’s aide told them in August 2001.

According to PWCS policies and regulations published on its Web site, “no teacher … employed in a school operated by the Commonwealth shall subject a student to corporal punishment.” The same regulation requires “principals and the appropriate area associate superintendent shall be responsible for … monitoring … this regulation.”

PWCS spokeswoman Irene Cromer said that “schools are required to file instant reports,” when allegations are made against staff members.

According to the Coffeys’ motion for judgment, “this aide and other aides who observed further assaults were ignored and treated in such a way that they feared reprisal and harassment … even being taunted by … Hogan. As a result of their actions, staff members felt reluctant in bringing further incidents to the attention of the administrators.”

Daniel’s parents noticed no unusual bumps or bruises during this time period: as Patricia Coffey explained, her son always comes home with bruises. Daniel’s balance is very poor, to the extent that he did not learn to walk until he had been at Ann Ludwig school in Woodbridge for several years. Daniel still frequently falls and runs into things.

The Coffeys then demanded an investigation from Kelly. Kelly sent a summary of the findings to the Coffeys in October 2001.

“As a result, I do not have enough evidence to take action against any individuals with regard to hitting your son,” Kelly wrote.

According to the report, the school district’s investigator, Don Mercer, spoke to the other witnesses named by the aide that told the Coffeys of the incidents.

“The other witnesses she named refuted her statements and said that none of the incidents really happened in the way [she] expressed them,” Mercer wrote in his report. “The witnesses that were questioned stated there was no fear of retribution by Dr. Viggiani and that he had always treated them fairly …”

The Coffeys requested more detail from Kelly about the investigation. When Kelly said he couldn’t give them more information without infringing upon individual’s privacy rights, they hired an attorney and their own investigator.

Their investigator found two aides who said they had witnessed Hogan striking Daniel, but had never been contacted by the school district’s investigator, Mercer. The Coffeys say they have five witnesses to Hogan striking Daniel on various occasions.

Hogan has not returned calls seeking comment.

“I am amazed at how they’ve chosen to handle this,” Farmer said.

Mercer’s findings were that Hogan’s only contact was “in a defense mode using ‘handle with care’ defensive measures and trying to maintain Daniel in an equal state.”

Yet Roy Coffey says that ‘handle with care’ techniques should never have been used on his son. Such techniques are for students described as severely and profoundly developmentally disabled, and are not appropriate for someone with Daniel’s disabilities, he said.

“Handle with care is physical. You have to take them down. Under no circumstances are those techniques to be used on Daniel or someone like Daniel,” Roy Coffey said.

An incident report Hogan filed after a “temper tantrum/inappropriate aggressive behavior” on an October 2001 field trip noted that the “aggressive, inappropriate behavior exhibited by Daniel Coffey … is one of daily incidences this year. Not all of these incidents have caused injury to staff.”

The Coffeys maintain that Daniel is hardly aggressive. Defensive, perhaps, when threatened, his father suggested.

“He gets upset when challenged or cornered,” Roy Coffey said.

“He can get upset, very upset, because he can’t talk to you,” Patricia Coffey said. Daniel’s parents agreed however, that Daniel is “overall, a pretty happy kid.”

Roy Coffey demonstrated the usual disciplinary action to be taken on Daniel: covering both of his eyes. The action shuts out the upsetting stimulus.

The Coffeys, however, maintain that Ann Ludwig School teachers took Daniel on similar field trips designed to socialize developmentally disabled students. Though they may have had problems, they were always able to take Daniel with them.

“He did get thrown out of the White House,” said Roy Coffey with a laugh. “I told him he couldn’t be thrown out of better.”

They view his own school as a different story. A court date has not been set.

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