MYNORTHWEST NEWS

Tacoma Public Schools teacher allegedly assaults student with autism

Nov 30, 2023, 12:40 PM

tacoma school teacher student austism...

Skyline Elementary in Tacoma (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

A Tacoma teacher is accused of assaulting a student with autism multiple times, according to an internal investigation report from Tacoma Public Schools.

Investigation

KIRO 7 News first spoke with Lawrence Haskins in early October who said his six-year-old son, Orion, who has autism and is non-verbal, was assaulted by his special education teacher multiple times at Skyline Elementary in Tacoma.

He said staff members had told him and his wife, Tiffany Christianson, about the first alleged incident in March.

Haskins said his teacher, Kathleen Skaar, grabbed him roughly by the arm and yelled at him.

The district investigated the incident, but the parents did not get many details about the investigation, he added.

“They never really went into detail as to what happened with him. We didn’t really get any clarification, like detailed clarification that we wanted. So we made it very clear in an email we wanted more answers,” he told KIRO 7 News.

In May, he said staff members told him and his wife about a second incident, involving his son’s teacher pushing Orion into a bookshelf and dragging him to the floor.

KIRO 7 News had reached out to the district in October about the reported incidents. The district declined to speak with us on camera and said it was investigating the matter.

No other details were shared at the time.



 District’s internal investigation report

After we covered the father’s story in October, the father said he received two internal investigation reports from Tacoma Public Schools – one focused on Kathleen Skaar and the second on Regina Lake, Skyline Elementary’s principal – both outlined the results of the district’s findings into the allegations.

The reports came nine months after the first reported incident.

He shared it with KIRO 7 News.

KIRO 7 News reached out to the school district to validate the content of both reports. A spokesperson for the district said the reports were given to Orion’s parents, and the district had no issues with the details of the reports.

“A lot of the staff, who knew about it, had sat in front of us repeatedly in IPE meetings and group meetings about Orion’s behavior and blamed it on our son,” Christianson told KIRO 7 News.

However, the results of the district’s internal investigations said otherwise.

“We were not expecting a pages-long report of a litany of diabolical, physical, and emotional and psychological abusive offenses committed by someone with such a scared public trust,” the father said.

“Heartbroken, disappointed, hurt.” Christianson added, “Guilty for sending him to school where he was being hurt repeatedly and we didn’t know. And really, I felt betrayed mostly. The majority of those people in those meetings with us, they knew that he and other kids were getting hurt in that class, and they said nothing,” Christianson said.

Report findings

Within the report, which was dated November 3, the district said Kathleen Skaar violated district policies and demonstrated inappropriate behavior for the 2022-2023 school year.

It said that two educational support professionals reported concerns about her behavior to the school’s principal Regina Lake on May 19. The district placed Skaar on administrative leave on the same day.

The district said it had sufficient evidence that Skaar, who has 18 years of teaching experience, performed the following behaviors:

  • Ms. Skaar yelled at your child.
  • Ms. Skaar flipped over a table in front of your child.
  • Ms. Skaar grabbed your child and pulled your child by the wrist or forearm.
  • Ms. Skaar grabbed your child and pulled him across a table.
  • Ms. Skaar used her body and hands to push your child.
  • Ms. Skaar threw a chair that hit your child.
  • Ms. Skaar did not use best practices such as Right Response or Optimal Performance Range to work with your child; and
  • Ms. Skaar targeted your child.

“What tears me up is him not being able to tell us what happened, but he’s suffering through all these things,” Haskins said.

“It makes me sick. I can’t even really think about the things that probably happened that we don’t know about. It makes me sick,” Christianson said.

The district’s report said Skaar was terminated effectively on November 10.



 State laws

KIRO 7 News looked into state laws, and according to RCW 28A.400.317 also known as “Duty to report,” “the school administrator shall cause a report to be made to the proper law enforcement agency if he or she has reasonable cause to believe that the misconduct or abuse has occurred as required.”

KIRO 7 News received the below email from Haskins, which he said was sent to him from Renee Trueblood, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. Within the email, Trueblood wrote, “I have also confirmed that a mandatory report has been made pursuant to RCW 28A.400.317.”

However, when KIRO 7 News asked Joey Grant, the school district’s public records manager, if Skyline Elementary or the district had filed any report regarding the district’s findings with law enforcement, Grant said they did not.

Tanisha Jumper, the district’s spokesperson, later told KIRO 7 News that the district had made a report to Child Protective Services.

KIRO 7 News requested the document from the district to validate, however, Grant said the district is not allowed to release related information according to state laws. However, if the district had filed a CPS report, it would be noted in the Exemption log, Grant added.

KIRO 7 News is working to request the document.

“What do you think they’re doing to other kids? These are just the things we know about,” said Christianson.

According to the district’s internal investigation report into Kathleen Skaar, 15 staff members and four parents were interviewed by Diane Thomas, assistant director of compliance and investigations.

Only one parent, who was interviewed, had direct knowledge of Skaar’s interaction with his student, the report wrote.

Support for Skaar

The report shared statements on Skaar’s behavior from the interviews, however, it did not indicate the person who made the statement.

A number of staff members supported Skaar in the report:

  • “I don’t want this to take her down. We are friends, we are colleagues, we share. I need her back.”
  • “Kathy is a good teacher. The situation here just got out of hand.”
  • “(I’m) Not at all concerned how she is interacting with students.”
  • “She has pretty tough kids in the classroom. I have to give her that.”

The report also said that Orion’s parents had sent an email on March 1, sharing their positive feedback on Skaar.

“My wife and I already had full confidence in Kathy Skaar, but my conversation with her just morning not only showed her skill as an education professional, but it really showed her heart, so much that I definitely believe you should hear about it.”

KIRO 7 News asked the parents about the email that they had sent.

“The reason I said that is because they didn’t disclose anything to us. They downplayed what was happening. They didn’t tell us anything,” said Haskins.

“We were being kind, and supportive and doing everything we possibly to do so Orion would have a good safe happy environment at school,” said Christianson.

Skaar’s response on the report

KIRO 7 News reached out to Skaar to get her response on the district’s report.

“It does not say I hit anybody. I’m not doing this. I’m sorry. I’m talking with a lawyer. I’m not doing this. I deny it. I did not hit anybody. I grabbed kids. Preventing them attacking people. I have 11 kids in my classrooms. I have eight of them with behavior issues. I had no help. I did not hit anybody. I tried to prevent things and that’s all I’m going to say,” she told KIRO 7 News.

The district also interviewed Skaar about the allegations.

Within the report, Skaar told the district that she is a “loud talker normally. I have a loud voice.”

“They have cognitive abilities: It’s the SEB and communication skills that are lacking. If I could just say stop, hands down, they might be in another classroom. You have to get louder so that they would listen,” she explained.

Thomas also asked Skaar about reports of her flipping a table.

“It’s pretty heavy. I tried to do it slow. It was heavier than I expected. It just kind of dropped,” she explained.

Skaar also said she does not recall throwing a chair that hit a student and pushing a student against a bookcase or in the corner.

“I don’t know what to do. I back up and put my hands up. I don’t grab him. He runs up to me. MANDT says to use your body to stop him. I don’t touch him or hit him. He runs up to me,” she explained when asked about pushing a student to the ground.

Skaar also said she did not recall targeting any specific students in the past.

“I have asked for help repeatedly and haven’t gotten it. Eleven kids, so many autistic. It was developmental before and not autistic … I feel all day long I was just trying to protect kids,” she told Thomas.



 Criticized Skaar’s behavior

However, others within the report criticized her behavior:

  • “She yells a lot. It appears to be her go-to method of classroom management.”
  • “She (Kathy) stood up from her table group and angrily flipped up the table. The students were seated at the table when she flipped it.”
  • “He (Orion) went to try to hit her with a pencil or something. She grabbed both hands and pulled him across the table. Both feet were lifted off the ground.”
  • “She pushed her body against his and rammed (hard shove – uses her body) him into the storage unit”
  • “She was chasing (Orion) and she flipped a chair (about three feet or so), and it hit (redacted) on the wrist. She said that (Orion) did it, but it was her.”
  • “She threw the chair (a couple of feet and I think it hit (redacted)”
  • “Her moods go from happy to aggressive in the blink of an eye … It all affects the climate and culture in the room.”
  • “She is emotionally abusive to them.”

Staff members also shared statements on Skaar “targeting specific children.”

  • ” … Kathy has sort of targeted children over the years. There is usually one that makes it to the top of the list. She definitely has one this year. It’s (Orion).
  • ” … It seems like she chooses a kid every year to pick on.”
  • “She’s a bully to kids and to adults (if they let her)”
  • “With Kathy, something should have happened a long time ago. This has been going on for years.”
  • ” … I’ve been seeing this same pattern of behavior. This isn’t necessarily new behavior from her. I’ve worked here since the 2016-2017 school year. This is not the first time I’ve had to intervene with students.”

“There is a culture issue there. There is an atmosphere there that is permissive,” Haskins said.

“If you let a teacher do this for a whole year and knew about it, and not only did you allow it to happen, but you didn’t tell the parents of the kids that are being hurt. What do you think they’re doing to other kids? These are just the things we know about,” Christianson said.

The school district also interviewed five staff members who said they had knowledge of Skaar interfering with the investigation on or after May 19.

Training

The district noted within the report that Skaar received a Letter of Reprimand for yelling in students’ faces, engaging in power struggles with students that escalated student behaviors and creating a difficult and negative learning environment on March 3.

Skaar was also directed to complete an anger management course.

The district said Skaar also received training in several areas throughout the past eight years, including the following:

  • Maintaining appropriate staff/student boundaries training
  • Right response training
  • Child abuse and neglect mandatory reporting training
  • Bullying: recognition and response training

Skaar also received a Letter of Direction from the district to “speak to staff in a calm manner, to avoid using a negative tone or raising your voice” in 2018.



 Skyline Elementary principal 

KIRO 7 News also received another report from the parents about the district’s investigation into Skyline Elementary’s principal Regina Lake.

The district said Lake did not violate any district policies within the report.

However, the report did not address that Skyline Elementary did not report the district’s findings into Kathleen Skaar to law enforcement as required by state law.

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