Broward Teacher Called 8-Year-Old Special Needs Boy "Dumbo," Isolated Him From Peers

Broward Teacher Called 8-Year-Old Special Needs Boy "Dumbo," Isolated Him From Peers
Oregon State University / Flickr

Oregon State University / Flickr
A Broward County teacher bullied, humiliated, and ridiculed an 8-year-old student with autism and ADHD, even going so far as calling him "Dumbo" during a December 2015 parent-teacher conference, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Miami by Savannah Varner, the boy's mother.

Varner says Sally Nardi, the boy's third-grade teacher at Park Springs Elementary in Coral Springs throughout the 2015-16 school year, wrongfully accused him of forging his mother's initials on his planner (he and his mother share the same initials), chastised him in front of the class for lying, and then subjected him to a "police-style" investigation and classwide Survivor-style "vote" to determine whether he was telling the truth.

Varner is suing Broward County Public Schools for negligence and violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. She is also suing Nardi and her son's fourth-grade teacher, Jennifer Pugatch, for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Neither teacher could be reached for comment.

Asked about the abuse allegations, Cathleen Brennan, a public information officer for Broward County Public Schools, responded, "The District does not comment on potential, pending, or open litigation."

"This case arises out of the gross neglect and abuse of an eight-year-old child with disabilities," Varner's lawyer, Alex Tirando-Luciano, wrote. "The public school system of Broward County subjected a third and fourth grader to intimidation, bullying, abuse, teasing, isolation, and public humiliation."

Perhaps the most shocking moment came during a December 2015 parent-teacher conference when Nardi snapped at Varner's son: "Hey, Dumbo, turn around," while he was playing with toys off to the side of the room, Tirando-Luciano says. "She was just flabbergasted," he says of his client. "It was so out of nowhere, and she couldn't believe the teacher had just said that in front of her."

Though Varner was able to get her son transferred out of Nardi's class, the abuse began anew the following year around Christmas, when the fourth-grade teacher, Pugatch, told Varner her son needed to be medicated and moved him away from the tables shared with the rest of the class. He remained separated for five months.

The boy used to be a happy kid, but after years of mistreatment by his teachers, he began coming home crying, the lawsuit alleges. He told his mom that he wanted to hurt himself and that he felt like a piece of garbage. He said, "I felt like I was on a different planet drifting further and further away every day," according to the suit.

After months of isolation from classmates, Varner says, her son began to shut down emotionally. By March 2017, the boy "began to show extreme emotional distress at home in the form of talking to himself in a venting manner, which was deeply alarming and distressful to [his mother]," the lawsuit states.

When the boy began to cry at school, even hiding under his desk, Varner says, the teacher said in front of the whole class: "No wonder no one wants to work with you."

Eventually, Varner's son became afraid to go to school. He opted out of a class field trip to a museum for fear his teachers "would intentionally abandon him there," the lawsuit states.

Varner says the school disciplined her son for his disabilities rather than addressing his needs, as educators are required to do. Isolating special-needs children, as the Broward schoolteachers did with Varner's son, can cause serious emotional damage and stunt their development, leaving them with lingering insecurities and trauma that can be difficult to overcome

This isn't the first time the Broward school district has been in trouble for abusing children. In 2014, fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Forshey was arrested for allegedly forcing a 10-year-old student to unclog a urinal using his bare hands. "Victim's hands were saturated in what smelled like urine from the urinal and the paper towel that was in the urinal," read a Coral Springs Police report obtained by CBS Miami. The teacher maintained she did nothing wrong.

A lawyer for Broward County Public Schools is trying to get Varner's lawsuit dismissed on technical grounds. Tirando-Luciano says the boy has since been placed in a nurturing, loving school environment.

"It's a horrific situation," he says. "No parent should have to hear their child describe their school day the way that boy did."
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Meg O'Connor is a freelance journalist for Miami New Times. She moved to Miami from New York after earning a master's degree in investigative journalism from Columbia University. She previously worked for CNN's Investigative Unit.
Contact: Meg O'Connor