BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Two lawsuits involving a Brevard County Exceptional Student Education teacher tell vastly different stories, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
At issue is whether district teacher Stacey Garzione used acceptable and preferred classroom techniques when teaching children with autism or did she subject her students to “physical, emotional and psychological abuse?”
Orlando attorney Aaron Carter Bates, representing five Exceptional Education students and their families, is suing the Brevard County School District and Garzione in connection with her work at Ralph Williams Elementary School in Viera saying that what she did amounted to child abuse.
The suit, filed a few days before Thanksgiving in federal court, comes 18 months after Garzione filed a defamation lawsuit against one of her accusers -- a substitute teacher who spent 11 days assisting Garzione’s class.
Bates said five of the six students in the class have taken part in the lawsuit.
“Every allegation alleged in the federal lawsuit has been entirely, comprehensively investigated by the Brevard County School Board with a two-day hearing and a 38-page report by (BCSO) Agent Joe Martin who found Stacey Garzione entirely innocent of any child abuse allegation,” said her attorney Michael Kahn, who is also assisting the school district in defending against the federal lawsuit.
The alleged incidents were witnessed by a whistleblower in January 2019 when Garzione’s instructional aide was reassigned and replaced by a substitute teacher, Maren Caldwell, who then brought her complaints to the district.
A spokesman for Brevard Public Schools declined comment, saying they never comment on litigation. A representative of the Brevard Federation of Teachers also declined comment.
The families’ lawyer gave the BCSO report little credence saying his investigators did their “due diligence” over a four to five month investigation.
“In my almost 20 years of almost exclusively suing government entities is that the smaller the county the smaller the bed that you find the county and law enforcement in together,” Bates said. “The school district is not separated from the county in the way you would see in Miami-Dade or Orange County or elsewhere.”
Bates said his clients came to him only after there were no criminal charges filed by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.
“They were looking for some type of resolution via criminal charges,” he said. “And what they found was not even a cursory review was done by the sheriff’s office.”
Garzione was hired by Brevard Schools in 2017. She holds a dual master’s degree in general and behavioral disorder special education and spent five years working in New York City schools.
The lawsuit against Garzione alleges she caused students to break down “through humiliation, mocking, and videotaping students without consent.” It also claims that “multiple teacher’s aides: witnessed the abuse which included ‘improper uses of restraint, infliction of pain by way of touching pressure points and nerves, stepping on toes and fingers with entire body weight, and improper use of decompression methods resulting in the restriction of student’s ability to breathe.’”
In February, 2019, Garzione was placed on paid administrative leave while the district investigated the allegations. Garzione’s own defamation lawsuit against her main accuser, substitute teacher Caldwell, denies the allegations against her. Garzione defends her interaction with students as part of her training using the Autism Spectrum Disorder Nest Program, which focuses on using a sensory environment that relies on materials like weighted/huggy vests, mats, special seat cushions, fidget toys and snacks that require increased chewing.
Bates described an incident in which Garzione allegedly sat on a child restrained under a compression mat until he could barely breathe. “That is horrifying,” he said.
After being cleared by the district, Garzione requested a transfer from Williams Elementary School and now trains other ESE teachers in the district.
Garzione’s lawsuit claims Caldwell never expressed any concern about her teaching style and only made the allegations after Garzione and another teacher ordered Caldwell to leave the classroom for improperly addressing a student they were trying to calm.