Police: TA mistreated autistic student (update)

SARANAC LAKE – A teaching assistant has been accused of mistreating a 10-year-old autistic boy he worked with full-time at Petrova Elementary School.

Michael J. Heymann, 24, turned himself in at the village police station late Thursday morning after a warrant for his arrest was issued Jan. 17 by village Justice Kenneth McLaughlin.

Heymann was charged with endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. His attorney, Thomas Grue, entered a not-guilty plea on Heymann’s behalf during an arraignment proceeding in village court.

The criminal case stems from a Dec. 19 incident at the school.

“The way it was reported to us was that a parent contacted the school and indicated that their child had some marks on their neck that was left by possibly a teacher’s assistant,” said village Police Chief Bruce Nason.

The incident took place in a “relaxation room” at the school where disruptive students are sometimes taken. Heymann and the boy, a fourth-grader, were the only ones in the room at the time.

“The defendant did handle (the boy) in a forceful manner using inappropriate language and in a threatening tone, causing (the boy) to become upset and fearful and make the statement ‘I want to go to heaven,'” police officer Casey Reardon wrote in a Jan. 17 deposition. “The victim is autistic and the defendant did operate outside the management plan established by school officials while engaging in threatening behavior towards the victim.”

While the charge against Heymann stems from an alleged incident on Dec. 19, the boy’s mother said she and her husband first grew suspicious in early October, when her son came home with black and blue marks on his body.

“There was one on his shoulder and one on his upper under arm,” the mother said in a Dec. 30 statement to police. “It was obvious to me that they were finger marks.”

The Enterprise isn’t identifying the child or his parents because the newspaper doesn’t identify, directly or indirectly, alleged victims of abuse.

In an interview with the Enterprise, the parents said their son told them that Heymann was “hurting him,” but they didn’t immediately report anything to school officials because they disagreed about what to do.

“I didn’t believe it was happening, and (the boy’s father) did,” the mother said.

The boy’s mother said her son can be difficult to deal with and has behavioral issues that initially led her to question his account of what was happening at school.

Instead of reporting the alleged abuse, the parents decided to hide an audio recording device on their son, sewing it into the waistband of his pants.

“He knew he had it on him,” the boy’s mother said. “We told him he was a secret spy. And we also told him we would be able to hear everything he was saying, and that I would hear if he was calling a teacher a bad name.”

The recordings occurred on and off for a few weeks. The parents said they often didn’t have time to listen to each day’s six-hour-long recording, but when the boy’s mother listened to the tape from Dec. 19, she decided she had to tell the school about it.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t good,'” she said. “(Heymann) brought him into the (relaxation) room and lost it. You can tell from listening to it. This is what I’m picturing: He’s got him by the arms and he’s shaking him and just screaming. And then (the boy) is like, ‘You’re squeezing me.’ Then it sounded like he kind of threw him in his chair, and then he went back to him again and started doing it to him again. Then (the boy) starts crying, saying ‘You’re hurting me,’ he yells out for me and then he says he wants to go to heaven.”

The parents played the recording for the Enterprise. The voices are somewhat hard to hear since the recorder is inside the boy’s pants, but it’s clear that the adult the parents said was Heymann was angry when he and the student entered the relaxation room. The boy is heard asking the adult to stop squeezing him, then began sobbing and uttering a string of curse words at the adult, who had apparently calmed down by then.

The parents reported the Dec. 19 incident the next day to Petrova Principal Josh Dann but didn’t initially tell him about the recording. Dann contacted police, who interviewed Heymann that same day.

In a Dec. 20 statement to police, Heymann said he took the boy to the relaxation room because the boy was behaving badly in class. He said he sat in a chair behind the boy “until he became unsafe by flailing his body while sitting in the chair.

“For safety, I placed my hands on (the boy’s) shoulders in an attempt to keep him from harming himself. (The boy) stopped flailing and started to relax. … At no time did I ever put my hands on (the boy’s) neck nor did I ever choke (him). The only physical contact that I have had with (the boy) is putting my hands on his shoulders when he was unsafe, holding his hand to guide him to the relaxation room and periodically throughout the day a hug or a pat on the shoulder for reassurance and positive reinforcement.”

Village police interviewed the boy on Dec. 23, and the mother provided a written statement a week later. Nason said his officers also listened to the recording but felt there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Heymann with anything more serious than endangering the welfare of a child.

“By the time we spoke to the child, there were no marks that were visible, and we have no photos of marks that the child may have received,” Nason said.

At Thursday’s arraignment, village Judge Kenneth McLaughlin released Heymann on his own recognizance because he said he had been given assurances by Heymann’s attorney that his client would appear for his next court date on Feb. 25.

The judge issued a temporary order of protection that prevents Heymann from having any contact with the boy and his family until April. Grue had argued against it because he was concerned about the order affecting his client’s future employment potential.

Heymann declined to speak to the Enterprise outside the courtroom. His attorney also said he had no comment.

School Superintendent Gerald Goldman provided the Enterprise with a prepared statement but otherwise declined to speak about the matter.

“The school employee (Heymann) was interviewed by Mr. Dann on December 20 and denied the allegation,” the statement reads. “The school district prohibited the employee from working with the child after December 20 while the investigation was pending.”

Heymann resigned from his position at Petrova on Dec. 31. The Saranac Lake school board voted unanimously to accept his resignation following an executive session at the board’s Jan. 2 meeting.

School officials also say they reported the incident to Franklin County Child Protective Services and the state Department of Education’s Office of School Personnel Review and Accountability. An Education Department spokeswoman told the Enterprise its office doesn’t comment on pending investigations.

Two school officials with knowledge of the incident, who both declined to be named, told the Enterprise that Heymann’s being alone with the boy in the relaxation room violated school policy. In such situations, two teachers or teaching assistants are supposed to be present.

The boy’s parents praised Dann and Petrova’s teaching staff, but criticized the district for not doing enough to support its special education program.

“They’ve always tried the best that they could, but there’s not even an autism consultant anymore, which they used to have,” the mother said. “I think there’s a true lack of education and understanding when it comes to dealing with kids with special needs, especially autism.”

Heymann, a native of Tully, near Syracuse, was hired by the school district in August 2012 as a long-term substitute teaching assistant, taking over for a TA who was out on medical leave. He is a certified elementary school teacher and earned his teaching degree from SUNY Plattsburgh in 2011. Heymann was also a seven-time Division III All-American at SUNY Plattsburgh in cross-country and track and field.

Until recently, Heymann had worked at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, where he served as a dorm parent and provided English-as-a-second-language support to the private school’s students, according to the NSA website.

“National Sports Academy was made aware of this accusation through the Adirondack Daily Enterprise,” NSA Head of School Kim Dow wrote the paper Thursday in an email. “Mr. Heymann was employed at NSA from September until December and left of his own accord.”

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.