Robin Johnson had a favorite technique for disciplining some of her special-education students: According to a new federal lawsuit, she would drop the first- and second-graders into a trash can or recycling bin, then forcibly keep them there when they struggled to escape.
The Statesville teacher singled out one boy in particular, Gage Andrews, based on the complaint filed by the child’s mother:
“If he acted ‘like trash,’” Johnson would say, she “would treat him like trash.”
The verbal and physical abuse of Gage and other special-needs students under Johnson’s care at Cloverleaf Elementary School lasted for at least two years before the teacher’s October 2019 arrest, the lawsuit claims.
Throughout, according to the complaint, school administrators from Cloverleaf’s principals to the superintendent of Iredell-Statesville Schools failed to act on warnings they received from Johnson’s fellow faculty members.
Johnson, a former school bus driver and receptionist before becoming a teacher, was charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault on a handicapped person — Gage. Under a March plea agreement with prosecutors, she received deferred prosecution and remains on supervised probation through next September, the lawsuit says.
Robin Johnson did not respond to Observer emails seeking comment for this story. Now she may be back in a courtroom.
The federal complaint filed last week by Renee Andrews, Gage’s mother, accuses the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education of discrimination, violating her son’s constitutional right to an education, infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment, among other claims.
It also names Robin Johnson, former Superintendent Brady Johnson (no relation), Associate Superintendent Alvera Lesane, and Cloverleaf principals Alisha Cloer and Andrew Mehall as defendants.
The complaint — the second filed this fall alleging mistreatment of an autistic student by a Statesville school — includes a harrowing account of what allegedly went on in Johnson’s segregated classroom during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. It also details the failure of school leaders to step in or alert parents to how their children were being treated.
Renee and Gage Andrews are not identified in the lawsuit. But she gave the Observer permission to use their names to possibly bring more attention to their story.
More than a year after Johnson’s arrest, the mother said she is still grappling with the fact that she was one of last to know about the abuse of her son.
“From a mother’s standpoint it broke me. It was a pain like no other,” Andrews told the Observer on Tuesday. “It was like they were being tortured. That’s the only way I can think about it. It was torture. These were children. The stuff being done to them was unimaginable.”
Johnson’s classroom status remains unclear. School district spokeswoman Jada Jonas told the Observer that Johnson “is no longer an employee of the Iredell-Statesville Schools.” However, as of Thursday the district’s website continued to list her as a special-education teacher at Third Creek Middle School.
School board attorney Constantine Kutteh of Statesville said the case has been referred to the North Carolina School Boards Trust, a risk-management partner of the state’s public schools that would be handling the defense.
He declined further comment.
Based on reports at the time of her arrest, Johnson mistreated multiple students. But according to the lawsuit, the teacher singled out Gage, who has been diagnosed with autism and other behavioral problems.
Johnson was the boy’s teacher for first and second grades. On regular occasions, the complaint alleges, she would push him to the ground, hold him there and place her hand forcibly against his mouth to muffle his screams.
It also made it hard for the boy to breathe. Gage eventually told his mother that Johnson had once tried to suffocate him, according to the lawsuit.
On another occasion in second grade, the lawsuit claims, Gage damaged his desk during an angry outburst. Johnson made him stand for the rest of the school day. When the child came home, according to the complaint, his shirt was wet with tears. When the mother asked Johnson what had happened, Johnson told her she was teaching the boy a lesson about respecting school property.
In another incident included in the complaint, Gage arrived home with grease in his hair, his clothes badly stained and no explanation from Johnson or the school. Johnson eventually told the mother she had “accidentally” dropped her lunch of collard greens on Gage’s head after she had heated it up in a microwave.
Renee Andrews, an operating-room nurse, says her son’s skin was scalded.
The family’s attorney, Stacey Gahagan of Durham, questions whether the incident was unintentional, saying: “It seems to fit a pattern of abuse.”
“It’s certainly questionable,” said Gahagan, a former school principal whose legal practice specializes in representing disabled students. “Given everything else that was happening, ‘purely accidental’ becomes a lot harder to believe.”
According to the complaint, Johnson told Gage that his mother “wanted her to restrain him” to control his anger.
Instead his behavior worsened. Only weeks into his third-grade year, Gage was placed on home assignment.
“You knew something was wrong, but you did not know what was wrong. His behavior changed drastically,” Andrews recalled. “He was not wanting to go to school, but he wouldn’t tell us why. Anything we would question at the school, they always had an answer.
“It was just an ordeal. You’d see things happening and you didn’t know why.”
Another case of abuse
The complaint against Johnson is the second involving the treatment of an autistic student in the Iredell-Statesville schools this fall.
In October, the family of a 7-year-old autistic student at the Pressley Alternative School filed suit after a school resource officer handcuffed him, then sat on the boy more than 30 minutes, periodically taunting him as his teacher watched, according to a video of the incident. The officer said he had seen the boy spitting in a classroom.
The family’s attorney, Alex Heroy, called the officer’s body-camera video of the incident “one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
On Monday, Heroy described the allegations in the Johnson complaint as “pretty awful stuff.”
“Children don’t belong in trashcans,” Heroy said in an email to the Observer. “The allegations show not only systemic, institutional failures when it comes to special education, but, at times, disdain towards children with heightened behavior and mental health needs.”
Gahagan says the two abuse cases indicate that “There’s a bigger issue of training people to see these handicapped students as human beings.”
The veil of secrecy surrounding Johnson’s classroom was lifted in September 2019 when the parents of another of Johnson’s former students learned of the teacher’s disciplinary techniques, the lawsuit claims.
That family went to a school counselor, who reported the allegations to then-Superintendent Brady Johnson and the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office. According to the complaint, Brady Johnson, who retired in June, and his staff did not investigate the complaints, remove Robin Johnson from her classroom, or report the allegations, as required by law.
Robin Johnson was arrested a month later.
In her request for damages, Renee Andrews says a portion of any money she receives will be applied to the cost of psychological care Gage still needs due to the mistreatment he received. She says her goal with the lawsuit is more about awareness than financial gain.
“Every time you turn around there is an autistic child being abused, whether it’s at school or on the bus or wherever,” she said. “If this case can change it for one child and make a way that’s better for these children, then we’re doing something. They deserve a shot at life.”
Gage turns 10 on Friday. After 15 months away from the classroom, his mother enrolled him last week in a private school outside of Iredell County that specializes in teaching autistic children. Though his re-acclimation to the classroom has had some bumps, Andrews says, her son already has shown some signs of beginning to trust his teachers again.
“I can actually see him getting happy. You can see the change,” Andrews said, before recounting an earlier conversation with Gage — the boy she calls “my hero.”
“There was one day when I was crying and upset, and I told him, ‘They didn’t break you,’” Andrews recalled.
“And he looked at me and he knew what I was talking about, and he said, ‘No I was lucky.’”
*story by The Charlotte Observer