When bubbles burst: Alleged abuse of special needs students hits way too close to home

by Jo on April 24, 2012

I’m not saying that I’ve been living in a bubble.

I mean, I don’t think you CAN live in a bubble when you parent a special needs child. You must remain vigilant at all times; whether for medical reasons, potential IEP shenanigans, or anything pertaining to the well-being and continued development of your child, you are always on guard, even when for a moment everything seems to be just as it should.

But sometimes something catches us off guard and we realize we’ve managed to visit the bubble just long enough to hear the loud POP and feel the unexpected chill upon our skin when it suddenly bursts.

And so it was, this past Saturday morning, when my tiny, temporary bubble BURST with a BANG.

A BANG so loud it made me jump right out of my seat.

A BANG so intense my hands still shake if I think about it too much.

When I first read the news story about special education teacher Daniel Lentini -who works in the same district where my own special needs son Andrew attends school – and the accusations that he abused several of his students, the story felt so close to home I was compelled to write about it.

I felt sadness for the students, anger at the teacher, and wondered out loud if I knew any of the families who had been affected by this alleged abuse.

A short time after my article published, I began receiving emails from some of the parents whose kids were in Lentini’s class.

As I read their words, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of betrayal by our school district, who failed these students on several levels, including speaking to the parents immediately after the allegations were brought against the teacher, so they could take the necessary steps to protect their children from further potential harm.

By the way, and this for ALL the school districts out there: parents DON’T live by the “innocent until proven guilty” code. We leave that for the courtrooms. All we need is one tiny seed of doubt that someone MAY be harming our child and that’s enough for us to know we don’t want that person anywhere near our son or daughter. Do you hear me? We don’t sit around and wait until the bruises are big enough to see from outer space, because by then the emotional scars are so deep it’ll take a miracle to heal them. We have the RIGHT TO KNOW that there are concerns about a teacher, regardless of whether the concerns are substantiated by one of your over-priced private investigators, so that we can get our kids the HELL AWAY FROM HIM or HER.

I also received an email from Laurie James-Engler, the aide who initially came forward with the abuse allegations against Lentini and provided her superiors with 8 PAGES of detailed accounts of inappropriate behavior towards the students by this teacher. These were incidents which she personally witnessed and she was willing to go on record with them.

Let me tell you something about the UN-glamorous world of a whistle blower. This woman  has been shunned by coworkers, was told by her supervisors that her job was basically over, has endured countless sleepless nights because of the stress associated with this situation, has been labeled as a disgruntled employee by the district as a cheap and cowardly effort to discredit her, and will surely have her personal and professional life scrutinized by Lentini’s legal team as well as OUSD.

Do you know what disgruntled employees do? They slash tires and post Facebook updates that begin with “My boss is a douche.” They don’t willingly turn their lives upside down by going against the status quo.

James-Engler could have folded. She could have given in to the pressure of the district and sought to save her own ass. Instead, she has taken the road most refuse to travel and has stuck to her story, because as a fellow parent and a decent human being, she cares about our kids and knows that abuse, in ANY form, towards ANYONE, is UNACCEPTABLE.

I want you all to stop reading for a second and say a prayer for James Engler. Pray for continued strength for her, because Lord knows she’s going to need it as this story continues to unfold and she’s forced to recount the details of the alleged events of abuse over and over again.

Now, back to that bubble.

It was Saturday morning, and I was home alone with Andrew. Mikey and Ian had left for Ian’s baseball game early and I was planning on meeting them at the field a little later. Before I headed out, I checked the morning’s headlines on ocregister.com, and there, on the homepage was a photo of Mr. Daniel Lentini.

Mr. Danny.

At least,that’s what we used to call him years ago, when he was still an instructional classroom aide and worked at Andrew’s previous school.

In Andrew’s previous classroom.

Mr. Danny.

And that’s when the bubble went POP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

and I was left covered in its cold, damp, disgusting aftermath.

I sat and I stared at his picture and I thought I might throw up.

Before that moment, I had no idea who Daniel Lentini was and what he looked like. All I knew was that he better not cross paths with me.

But that all changed once I saw his face and realized he was someone who not only was being accused of mistreating and abusing his innocent special needs students, but someone who once had lots of access to my son.

You don’t want to do it.

You don’t want to go there because once you go there it’s so hard to get back.

But despite your best efforts your heart begins to palpitate while your mind starts to race

and the only words you hear, besides the ringing in your ears,

is

WHAT IF?

I don’t know how I got to that baseball field, but the minute I saw my husband I began to weep.

My best friend helped talk me off the ledge, right there in between little league innings, and when I was finally able to catch my breath, all I could muster was : “It could’ve been him. It could’ve been Andrew.”

I looked over at my son then, sitting on a blanket near his daddy, his head tilted down as he played on his iPad while his brother waited for his turn at bat. I watched as my Andrew sat there and I imagined someone purposely hurting him and the air rushed out of my lungs and my knees went weak.

***

It’s been a few days since my bubble burst.

Do I think Lentini hurt my son?

No, and the only reason I say that is because back then he was an aide who was under the direction of one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Had there been any cause for concern I choose to believe that she would have seen to it that Lentini was removed and disciplined.

But evil lurks within “kind” men and the most dangerous assumption is that someone capable of hugs isn’t capable of harm.

I too have had some sleepless nights lately.

I keep thinking how vulnerable our children are; some are non-verbal, some are physically unable to fend for themselves, most require a level of assistance that forces them to rely on others.

And do you know what I keep seeing in my mind as I lay wide away in the darkness? Big giant bullseyes over the heads of our kids, because they are easy targets and there are plenty of Lentini’s in this world who will try to take advantage of them.

Hopefully the James-Engler’s will outnumber them.

Hopefully.

In the meantime, I’m so grateful for the amazing people in Andrew’s life today, especially his 1:1 aide; we’ll call her Ms. L for privacy’s sake.

She’s one of the only reasons I’m not homeschooling my special needs son right now. Ms. L is his “school mom” and I know she would do anything to keep Andrew safe.

Having her in our lives has been an absolute game changer and as I dropped him off in his classroom this morning, I counted my blessings and tried to put some distance between the WHAT IF’s that have been haunting me all weekend.

But no matter how hard I try,

I know I’ll never forget

the way my insides shook

when

my

bubble burst.

 

 

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Audrey Hodge April 24, 2012 at 3:56 am

Hi Jo,
When I read about that teacher in the paper I too was shocked and was wondering if you knew him. I couldn’t believe the outright abusive behavior he is said to have done- right in front of another adult! WOW It saddens me to hear that this aide is being looked down for speaking up for children! ABOVE ALL WE MUST NEVER HARM CHILDREN!

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Flannery April 24, 2012 at 1:59 pm

What do we have to do as parents to get the world to take notice that we’ve had enough of schools protecting abusive teachers?? When will this stop? There’s so much lip service to “protecting children” and how precious children are, but when school administrators are allowed to turn a blind eye, protect abusive teachers, or wash their hands of any accountability, they are as guilty and as responsible as the teacher.

I am so angry. Very, very angry.

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Rebecca April 24, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I truly can not believe that a district could completely fail an entire community. Because this is about a cover up a deep cover up that the district is facilitating. Anyone that is involved in NOT letting the parents know before 3 months of this going on should be immediately fired. I am so sorry this happened to all of these families, and to James-Engler my God hold you in the hallow of his hand. Thank you for stepping up and being the voice and protector for these kids. OUSD should be hanging it’s head in shame, the teachers union who is giving that maggot paid leave is clearly criminal protectors. We the moms and the few aides that do their job because of a “calling” are what our kids have between them and the big bad world. My biggest fear is now a reality that I never wanted to acknowledge.

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Kendall April 24, 2012 at 9:14 pm

It has taken me all day to figure out if I should respond to this! As an employee of OUSD and having worked along side, as an aid, of Mr. Danny, as well as for him as an aid, I am having a hard time staying quiet!! If you do not personally know him I find it extremely unfair for anyone to come to conclusions based on one person’s word! There is a reason why Mr. Danny has been a favorite of all the children, not just in the class he has worked, and that is not because he is an evil man! I completely empathize with the parents of the children and understand that this is their child and need to protect them. I ask that none of you cast anymore stones until these allegations are proved to have validity to them and are proven! How horrible would you feel for bashing someone who ends up being proven innocent? I know I’m going to hear a lot for this but I just think someone should speak up for his character in here!

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Jo April 25, 2012 at 12:23 am

Well Kendall, let me first say I appreciate you weighing in.

Let me also assure you that the “nicest,” “funniest,” and most “popular” teachers are capable of doing awful things to students. The aide that has come forward did not do so out of a vendetta or for glory. There is NO glory in being a whistle blower. Her emails to me have been so touching, so honest, so raw and detailed. This is a woman who risked her job and her reputation to do right by the students at Taft Elementary. Trust me when I tell you that she’s gotten nothing but grief from the district and still she says she would do it all over again in a heartbeat because someone HAD to. She also makes it clear that Danny’s demeanor with the students changed drastically in a few short months and by the time she reported the alleged abuse it had spiraled out of control.

I’m so glad your time with Danny was good and that students loved him. But Kendall, it takes just ONE; just ONE incident of abuse, of inappropriate behavior, of cruelty, towards a student to turn a good person into an evil one.

Most of our kids are non-verbal. They have sensory issues. They have trouble forming bonds. They rely on structure. The allegations against Danny are so detailed it would make your head spin. He was recorded taunting a little girl with autism who can’t stand singing and so he sang, telling her that he didn’t like her crying and wouldn’t stop singing to her until he cried. Do you know what we call that? TORTURE, that’s what. It’s cruel and it’s a way of exerting power and control over someone weaker, someone who relies on you for comfort and safety. It’s SICK. I don’t need a laundry list of all of the wonderful things Danny has done over the course of his career. One tiny seed of doubt is one seed too many for this mama. You can speak for his character until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that the district mishandled this entire situation from the very beginning and heads have to roll. How horrible would you feel if your child were in a class where TWO aides were willing to go on record that the children were being mistreated/abused and you were never notified, never given the RIGHT to decide whether or not you wanted your child to continue being a student in that class? No one is asking you to stay quiet Kendall, but don’t let the fact that you “know” someone cloud the fact that even those we love and respect are capable of doing bad things. The gossip going around the schools at OUSD about this aide are just that, gossip. It’s a cheap way to try and discredit someone who put EVERYTHING on the line on behalf of our silent children. You sound sweet, but so naive, and trust me when I say that you can’t possibly “EMPATHIZE” with the parents, unless you have a child with special needs and/or have had a child abused at the hands of someone you thought you could trust. You are more than welcome to “speak up for his character,” but those of us on the other side of the fence, parenting vulnerable children who end up victimized by the very people that are supposed to protect them, well, we’re speaking up for OUR KIDS. Cause that’s how WE roll.

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Cesar Pineda April 25, 2012 at 4:21 am

YES! THIS IS HOW WE ROLL!!!

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Kendall April 25, 2012 at 1:14 am

Jo, I actually have not heard anything about this aid until your post! I know what issues these children have as I have been an aid with special needs children ranging from mild to moderate to severe Autism so I am fully aware of how horrible this is for the parents & to not have their children be able to tell them if someone is hurting them! I myself have gone to bat for these children, that are not mine. No I do not have any children but I do have a nephew with special needs so I do EMPATHIZE with the parents and do understand how one thing can turn a nice person into an evil person, I am only to aware of that! You do not know my personal life so please don’t try to make assumptions. There’s also parts of the entire story that I’m sure the public doesn’t know, what I’m saying is not to condem someone without all the details from all sides. I think it’s odd that this woman is sending you 8 pages of documentation & I think that’s not proper protocall to do if it is evidence in a police investigation. I am not saying the aid is lying what I’m saying is the police didn’t believe there was enough evidence in the first place so let’s just let them do their job!

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jo April 25, 2012 at 2:39 am

Okay Kendall, I can see that commenting further is just going to escalate the dialogue into something I don’t want to be involved in. You have come to the blog of a parent who raises a special needs child, a child who depends on the kind of people who are willing to risk everything to protect him, so no matter what you say, you will not find sympathy for Danny from me. For the record, the aide has not sent me the 8 page complaint (not sure how you came to that conclusion, since I never said that) but several in-depth emails that speak to the incredible stress and pressure she has been under since she came forward with over 30 counts of inappropriate behavior/abuse that she witnessed Danny engage in with his special needs students. Let me remind you that abuse has many faces, comes in many forms, and when the initial “investigation” was launched by the district, the families were never contacted and no one spoke to the parents to determine whether there were any changes in behavior or other classic abuse symptoms that may have assisted them in the process. The district blew it from the beginning and leaves an expensive and morale busting mess in its wake.
Regardless, you are entitled to your own opinion and clearly you are batting for Team Danny, which means I really have nothing else left to say to you. .

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TheShock May 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Im sorry but I will wait till the findings come to light. This has disgruntled employee, or an employee that is exaggerating written all over it.

First off…
She comes to you the author with the 8 pages of complaints. This just screams drama. Think about it. There is an investigation going on because of her allegations. She is tainting the investigation by sharing this information with people. She is trying to get the opinion of the public on her side which if this is as serious as she claims would never require it. OUSD is not some intelligence agency involved in some mass cover up. They take allegations seriously. I grew up in OC, went to school in OC, and have personally seen teachers get dismissed for a lot less. This gentlemen is a first or second year teacher from what I read in the register. OUSD would blow him out so quickly his head would spin if they thought there was any serious wrong doing. They wouldn’t want him to getting any type of seniority.

Another thing that has me worried is the fact that in every article I read the information distributed to people all comes from one aide. Yes there have been two others that I read that were mentioned but one was a parent who was in constant communication with the Engler lady and the other was an aide that initially said nothing was happening but “came out” after Engler had spoken to her.

There is so much more I can go into based on what I have read in the news but I think I will end here. If this man is guilty they will find out but keep in mind you are all playing with a potentially innocent mans life and career. By what I’ve read here he’s already been tried and convicted in most of your eyes.

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