District accused of ignoring alledged abuse by teacher

WILLMAR -- A complaint against the Willmar School District claims that administrators looked the other way while a special education teacher verbally and physically abused a student for more than two years.

WILLMAR -- A complaint against the Willmar School District claims that administrators looked the other way while a special education teacher verbally and physically abused a student for more than two years.

The complaint filed last month with the Minnesota Department of Education alleges that Lisa M. Vander Heiden, a special education teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, used improper restraints and isolation techniques with the child from midway through her kindergarten year through the second grade.

The child and her family are seeking an administrative hearing about the charges of abuse. As a first step, the parties will meet to try to negotiate a settlement on Friday. That is a required step before an administrative hearing is held on the complaint. Once all administrative options have been exhausted, the case is likely to end up in federal court with claims of civil rights violations.

Margaret O'Sullivan Kane, the St. Paul civil rights attorney representing the child and her family, provided the complaint to the Tribune. The complaint provides one side of the issue and does not include a response from the school district.

Vander Heiden was on administrative leave for nearly all of the 2006-07 school year and returned to work on Aug. 27, when she was transferred to the Lakeview School. The school provides an education program for children at the adolescent treatment unit at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center.


It's the transfer to Lakeview that prompted Kane to release the complaint to the Tribune this week, even though it is not considered a public document.

"I don't ever go public with this stuff," she said in a telephone interview. "Normally, I would say, 'No comment.'"

The Lakeview School provides a therapeutic school program addressing social, emotional and educational needs for children, according to the Willmar Public Schools Web site. The adolescent treatment unit serves young people with mental health and behavioral issues who come from all over the state.

"My goal is not to destroy other people's lives," Kane said. "In this particular case, I feel very strongly. ... These children are even more vulnerable."

Jackie Nelson, the child's mother, spoke to the Willmar School Board in January and asked that the teacher be fired. She and Nelson "share the desire that this teacher not teach," Kane said.

Vander Heiden, an employee of the Willmar School District since 1992, has not been disciplined by the school district, according to the complaint. The school district, in a request for information, said, "No public information exists on any current or past investigations or disciplinary action."

The complaint lists five different investigations of Vander Heiden since February 2005. Two state investigations in the past year concluded that she had mistreated the child, and one school district investigation found that she had denied the child the right to use the toilet. Two previous school investigations had cleared her of allegations of mistreatment of children.

Willmar Superintendent Kathy Leedom said she could not comment about the specifics of the case, citing privacy laws that govern school officials. "I am very cognizant of private personnel data as well as private educational data as it relates to students," she said.


Vander Heiden did not return a message left at her home this week.

According to information from the school district, an employee on administrative leave is considered to have been temporarily removed from a job assignment. The employee continues to receive pay and benefits while on leave.


The complaint describes a child who had "average to high average nonverbal reasoning skills" but experienced serious delays in her verbal communication skills.

The child also exhibited behavior problems, including disruptive behavior in the classroom. Specialists consulted by the family and the school district said the behavior was common in children with communication problems, and it stemmed from her young age and her frustration at not being able to make others understand her.

The complaint alleges that Vander Heiden did not follow positive behavioral interventions laid out in the child's individual education plan, which is required for special education students. Instead, she continued to use a locked seclusion room despite a specialist's recommendation that the girl not be placed in isolation.

The girl was also placed in a study carrel-type desk called the "thinking desk" where she was required to sit silently and without moving, sometimes missing her scheduled special education services. Other staff reported that Vander Heiden would restrain the child and tell her she needed to "act like a second-grader" without spelling out specific expectations.

These disciplinary measures were reportedly used throughout the girl's first-grade and second-grade years.


In August 2006, Nelson was notified that the state was investigating a report that a teacher had abused her daughter. Before that, she had objected to restraint and isolation procedures but had not been aware that her daughter had been abused. She then filed her own complaint with the state, alleging that her daughter had been denied her rights as a special education student.

Vander Heiden was placed on administrative leave at the beginning of that school year. When her daughter's behavior suddenly deteriorated in early October, Nelson learned Vander Heiden had returned to the school. When Nelson complained to Leedom, the teacher was removed from the school again.

When school officials said in December that they could not assure her that there would be no contact between Vander Heiden and her daughter, Nelson transferred the girl out of the district. The child is now 9 years old.

According to the complaint, paraprofessionals who worked with special education students reported alleged abuses they saw in Vander Heiden's resource room, but they were told by administrators to "mind their own business."

The complaint refers to a "culture of silence" surrounding the resource room.

In investigative reports obtained by Kane, paraprofessionals are quoted referring to Vander Heiden's room as "more of a punishment/torture area than a classroom," and "more of a room for punishment and verbal and emotional abuse."

A summary of allegations in the various investigation reports includes accusations of Vander Heiden yelling at children, belittling them, cuffing them on the backs of their heads, grabbing or jerking them by the arms, pulling their hair and excessive use of restraints and seclusion.

"The heroes in this whole case are the paraprofessionals," Kane said this week. "They're the ones that stood up. But for that, none of us would know what was going on."


School district employees are considered mandated reporters. If they have reason to believe a student has been maltreated, they are required by law to report it to the Department of Education.

The complaint alleges that Leedom and other school administrators did not report suspected maltreatment when it was brought to their attention.

Among the claims in the complaint:

- That the girl's basic right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible was violated. That right is protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

- That the girl's constitutional rights were violated, including her right to equal protection and to be "secure in her person and bodily integrity."

- That the district discriminated against the girl by denying her equal access to an education during her kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade and third-grade years.

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