A Chicago attorney is asking the United States Department of Justice to launch a formal investigation into the treatment of special needs children in Chicago Public Schools.
In a letter written Tuesday to Attorney General William Barr, attorney Jon Erickson alleges that CPS has a “widespread policy and practice of allowing its teachers and employees to routinely engage in violence against special needs children, including extreme physical (strangulation) abuse, emotional abuse, and bullying.”
“All children have the right to a safe and healthy learning environment,” Erickson wrote. “It is clear that the Chicago Board of Education cannot fulfill this promise and has put its political interests before those of society’s most vulnerable.”
Erickson cites three lawsuits he has filed against CPS, each alleging abuse of special needs children. In the latest case, a woman named Teirra Black alleges her 11-year old son, Jamari Dent, tried to hang himself because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of CPS staffers, and now can neither see nor speak.
“If you would have known him, you would have loved him,” Black told NBC 5. “He’s blind now, he’s got a trach in his throat, he has a g-tube, he can’t move, his bones in his fingers—they’re deteriorating now.”
Black says she moved her son from Medgar Evers school because of abuse, but that her son and his sister reported the ill treatment continued at their new school, Carter G. Woodson, on south Evans.
“The teacher came down and slammed his head real hard to the desk,” she said, saying Jamari told her, “she had punched me in my stomach, she had choked me.”
In Feburary of 2019, Black said Jamari begged her not to make him return to Woodson.
“He was like, ‘I don’t want to go back to that school,’” she said. “He was like, ‘I want to kill myself.’”
In her lawsuit, she alleges that’s exactly what he tried to do. On the night of February 18, 2019, she said her daughter’s screams brought her to Jamari’s room, where she found him hanging by a bedsheet.
“His suitcase was knocked over,” she said. “He wrapped the sheet around the towel, the hook, and I guess he stood on his suitcase and hung himself.”
Black said she saved Jamari that night, but that he now requires round-the-clock care.
“My son hasn’t been able to see me in a year—he hasn’t been able to talk to me in a year,” she said. “That’s a different kind of hurt.”
And Erickson alleges he has two more cases with similar circumstances of abuse.
“This is one horrific tragic example of an insidious systemic problem at the Chicago Public Schools,” Erickson told NBC 5. “We’re talking about teacher on student bullying, and we’re talking about tacit approval of the bullying by the administration.”
He cited two additional cases.
In one case, a mother said her fourth grade special needs son was choked by his teacher, shoved into a table, then dragged down a flight of stairs.
The teacher, Nakita Brown, pled guilty to misdemeanor battery. In court, assistant State’s Attorney Anastasia Harper told the judge that what started as a verbal argument with the child turned violent.
“The defendant shoved (the child) picked him up by the back of the shirt and pushed him into the door of the classroom,” Harper said. “The defendant then picked (the child) up and dragged him out of the classroom by the arms, down a flight of stairs head first, causing bodily injury.”
In a transcript of the court proceedings, Harper is quoted saying school surveillance video captured the stairway episode.
“CPS as a bureaucracy has a policy of allowing special needs teachers to abuse special needs children,” Erickson declared. “They see it coming, and yet they decide to do nothing.”
In another lawsuit filed by Erickson, he alleges that in September of 2018, a 9-year-old student was choked and lost consciousness at the hands of Christopher Thomas, a school counselor at South Shore Fine Arts Academy. The attorney said he has found at least seven other incidents in Thomas’ past.
“There’s a systemic insidious problem at the Chicago Public Schools,” Erickson said. “They have a policy of ignoring dangerous teachers, when they are on notice that these teachers are harming special needs students.”
Citing litigation and student privacy laws, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton told NBC 5 the district is limited in the response it can give to the abuse allegations. Though in a statement, she said they are committed to protecting students.
“We take allegations of student harm seriously and any adult who harms or fails to protect students will be held accountable,” the statement said. "Student safety is the district’s highest priority.”
Bolton noted that instructor Nakita Brown was removed from her position in March of 2016, and that a “do not hire” designation was placed on her record. She said Christopher Thomas was likewise removed with the same “do not hire” designation, after being referred to law enforcement.
CPS said Jamari Dent’s attempted suicide and the family’s allegations of abuse over a year ago are still under investigation.