Wendy Maki hyperventilated as she recalled the pummeling — so many kicks and punches from a student that she couldn’t count them all. On and off for three days, she claims, her supervisors trapped her in a room with an unpredictably violent 7-year-old at Kitsap Lake Elementary School.
That was in the fall of 2017, and Maki has yet to return to work as a special-education teacher. The post-traumatic stress from the incident, according to her lawyers, is so bad that she only recently was able to be around her own grandchildren again.
Maki, 50, of Grapeview, Mason County, on Tuesday went public with her story, in part to draw attention to a federal civil-rights lawsuit she has filed against the Bremerton School District, but also to expose what she believes is a hidden problem: the trauma and violence that teachers sometimes endure on the job.
“A lot of education professionals are exposed to similar trauma every day,” Maki said. “They keep quiet about it” out of fear of retaliation or to protect their careers.
Maki last September sued the Bremerton district and two officials — including the former principal at Kitsap Lake Elementary and the district’s director of elementary education — alleging they fostered a hostile workplace by failing to heed her warnings about inappropriate behavior by a paraeducator in her classroom, and then retaliated against her when she persisted, including using part of a fire-hose to lock her in a room with a student who allegedly already broke one teacher’s nose and gave another a concussion. Maki’s attorneys said they expect the case will go to trial in January 2021.
In a statement, the district denied that Maki was ever locked in a room with the student, who is only identified by initials in the suit, and criticized Maki for singling the boy out for being “extreme and violent.” The district also said Maki ignored guidance from district officials.
“It is unfortunate that Ms. Maki and her lawyers have chosen to single out this student, which has brought unnecessary attention on the student and his family,” the district said.
However, Maki said she is not blaming the student, who she said she still “cares for deeply,” but rather focusing on policies and actions by district officials she alleges placed both her and the student in danger.
“I don’t want him vilified,” Maki said. “I believe he was traumatized just as much as I was. You could see his mental health deteriorate right along with mine.”
Maki had to leave the room several times during a 90-minute long conversation with reporters to regroup. She could be heard crying just outside the door.
Left alone with the student, whose body and head became lodged in the door gap a few times as he tried to escape, Maki said she didn’t have the necessary training to defend herself. On another occasion, school officials asked her to barricade herself in the room by shoving her desk up against the door, the lawsuit says.
“What the hell is going on?” she said she remembers thinking as the principal secured the door from the outside. “It was one of those surreal moments.”
Maki’s lawsuit also alleges that a paraeducator displayed sexually “grooming” behavior that focused on three boys with disabilities in the class. The lawsuit alleges the paraeducator had “inappropriate physical contact” with the boys and, at one point, was found lying in a tiny, darkened room behind a privacy screen with one boy, and “crushing” others up to her bosom. In another instance, she allowed a student to masturbate, the lawsuit alleges.
Maki claims that she repeatedly complained about the paraeducator to her supervisors, but that her concerns were ignored. The lawsuit alleges negligence, false imprisonment and civil-rights violations by the district and former principal Susan Stone and elementary education director Linda Sullivan-Dudzic.
The district, in a statement, strongly denied Maki’s claims and said her lawsuit is “filled with falsehoods.”
“The District’s highest priority is student safety,” attorney John Safarli said in the statement on behalf of the district. “All students within the District, including those at Kitsap Lake Elementary, were kept safe at all times.”
Safarli acknowledges that a “single employee” was disciplined “for failing to maintain appropriate boundaries with students by doing such things as giving small gifts.” However, he said, “there was never any finding of unsafe or sexually suggestive behavior by this employee.”
Safarli also said that the former principal, Stone, “denies any wrongdoing,” and said the suit is inaccurate — particularly in its claims of retaliation.
Students with disabilities made up more than 12% of the 369 students enrolled at Kitsap Lake during the 2017-2018 school year. Maki’s caseload, about nine students, included many students with severe cognitive disabilities who struggled to communicate verbally.
The student had escaped the school and run into street several times in the days before administrators confined Maki in the room, the suit alleges, and a district official had said that the student’s world “needed to be made small.”
Washington state law generally prohibits restraining and isolating a student except in cases where students may cause harm to themselves or others. The state doesn’t weigh in on the techniques districts should use to restrain and isolate.
If a section of fire-hose were used to lock a student and a teacher into a room together it wouldn’t fall under the purview of state law, said Lee Collyer, a program supervisor for the restraint and isolation division of the state education department. For a student to be isolated, they have to be alone.
“This is pretty far beyond restraint and isolation,” Collyer said. “If an adult is being isolated, that’s an issue of professional practices.”
Maki’s attorneys said that the student’s Individualized Education Plan, a legal document produced for every student with a documented disability, required a paraeducator to accompany the boy at all times. Administrators ignored that part of the plan, Maki said.
In the 2015-2016 school year, 9% of elementary school teachers reported that they had been physically attacked by a student, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey.