2theadvocate.com | News | Deaf School abuse — Baton Rouge, LA
Fourteen years ago, 13-year-old Daniel Lewis enrolled as a boarding student at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, a place that was supposed to give him the skills to engage with the world.
That August, Daniel — with bright blue eyes and blond hair, but borderline mentally retarded and smaller than his peers — moved into a room in the middle school dorm on the school’s Baton Rouge campus with three other boys.
During Daniel’s second week at the school, one of his roommates, a larger 13-year-old of normal intelligence, began crawling into his bed at night to rape him, Daniel recounted recently.
Susan Lewis, Daniel’s mother, pulled him from the school after only three weeks, when Daniel, despite not completely understanding what had happened, managed to tell her.
“I came home and told my mom what happened, all of it,” Daniel said.
Daniel’s rape was one of several at the school in the early 1990s, court records show. A four-part WBRZ series in 1999 uncovered “numerous and unabated” sexual incidents among students at the school, including rapes and molestations, many of which were not reported to police.
That series prompted state officials to form a task force to investigate those allegations and make recommendations for changes.
But a spate of recent incidents suggests that problems with sexual misconduct persist at the school.
A five-month Advocate investigation has revealed that in the past five years, seven adults — three teachers, a dorm worker, a counselor, a Sunday school teacher and a former student — have been accused of improper sexual behavior with four girls at the school.
Additionally, hundreds of pages of police and school incident reports show at least 32 incidents of sexual misconduct among students in the past five years, ranging from rape to sexual battery to inappropriate touching.
“That’s unreal, why hasn’t it stopped? Why hasn’t anybody in an administrative position stopped this?” Susan Lewis asked after hearing about the recent incidents.
School and state education officials maintain that they have adequately addressed the problem by reporting incidents to authorities, holding workshops with students and meeting with parents.
In a recent interview, state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek stressed that the five arrests of school employees were for alleged crimes that did not involve actual “skin-on-skin” sexual contact with students. Investigators have said that there was no skin-on-skin contact in the other two arrests either.
“I’ve been told by the experts that we brought in that the amount of activity we have going on is lower than normal as compared to (other) residential deaf education settings,” Pastorek said. “Having said that, is it good to have these kinds of actions? No, it’s not good. Is it acceptable? No, it’s not acceptable. Is it something we should try to reduce? Yes.”
Several outside experts maintain that deaf schools are an essential place for developing deaf culture and should be safe havens for students. No level of sexual misconduct is acceptable, they say.
A series of arrests
The 156-year-old state-run Louisiana School for the Deaf — with an annual budget of more than $20 million — is situated on 116 grassy acres on Brightside Lane in Baton Rouge and serves 225 students ages 3 to 21.
With the student body drawn from across the state, 146 live in the school’s six dormitories during the week. They are bused home on Friday evenings and return to the school on Sundays, interim director Kenneth David said.
Aside from being deaf, 28 percent of the school’s students have an additional disability, such as autism, below-normal mental capabilities or blindness, said Virginia Beridon, interim director of the state’s Special School District, which also oversees the state blind and special education schools.
The school employs 55 teachers, 23 teacher’s aides and 50 dorm workers, Beridon said.
While in the 1990s the school’s problems seemed to be limited to inappropriate sexual behavior among students, the problem today includes teachers and staff accused of being offenders.
The seven adults arrested from May 2003 to April 2008 are all deaf and were either school employees or members of the state’s tight-knit deaf community.
Four of the employees — Ray Freeman, Nathan Boyes, Christopher Watson and Amanda Key — were accused of sending a mix of explicit e-mails, text messages and photographs to teenage students.
A fifth employee, Charles Hodges, was convicted of molesting a 15-year-old girl. Prosecutors claim he forced her to touch him over his clothes when he was chaperoning a school trip to Florida.
A sixth arrest occurred when Brandon Veronie, a former student, sent explicit text messages to a 16-year-old girl. His plans to have sex with her in a field were thwarted when the student’s mother found the e-mails, police said.
Joey Thomas, a Sunday school teacher at the Liberty Deaf Assembly of God Church and former student, was arrested most recently. He was accused of sending explicit text messages and e-mails to a 14-year-old girl he considered his girlfriend.
Other inappropriate sexual behavior from teachers, while not criminal, has also occurred in the past five years.
Kristin Post Thibodeaux was allowed to resign in 2004 after an internal school investigation found she had conducted a series of inappropriate activities with her fourth-grade students. She taught them about oral and vaginal sex, put a thong on a boy’s head and stuck sanitary napkins on another student’s back, documents provided by the school say.
Melissa Stevens, one of the parents who sparked the investigation of Thibodeaux, said she was troubled by the way the school handled the situation.
“Allowing her to resign instead of being disciplined by termination, I don’t think that was appropriate,” Stevens said.
Adults were not the only people accused of sexual misconduct with deaf school students.
Under the state’s public records laws, The Advocate obtained internal school incident reports for 32 cases of student-on-student sexual acts that school administrators have handled since January 2003.
Of those, five were classified by the school as “Class A” offenses, defined as rape, sexual battery or a “repeated Class B offense.”
For a Class A offense, students receive from three to five days suspension or assignment to the After School Behavioral Center. Incidents are referred to police and the Office of Community Services when appropriate, school officials have said.
Freeman, the staff member arrested and convicted in 2005 on charges of obscenity, worked in the After School Behavior Center, counseling students when their behavior was inappropriate for the classroom.
The remaining reports were for “Class B” sexual misconduct, defined in the student handbook as “having sex or being involved in sexual activity (molestation) on-campus or off-campus during any school-sponsored activity.” For a first-time Class B offense, students receive one to three days suspension and assignment to the After School Behavioral Center.
In response to The Advocate’s public records request about student-on-student sexual acts, the deaf school provided incident reports that were almost completely blacked out. Those deletions made it nearly impossible to get a clear sense of what happened and the age or sex of the students involved.
Additionally, school officials and lawyers for the Department of Education repeatedly refused to provide the dates of offenses. They said providing that information would identify individual students.
Responding to a July letter asking for the dates of offenses, Pastorek offered in late September to provide them in exchange for blacking out more information. The Advocate declined.