Cherry Hill teacher accused of demeaning autistic student Akian Chaifetz placed on leave

Stuart Chaifetz, father of the student who recorded the alleged verbal abuse, released another excerpt from the recordings on YouTube.
Stuart Chaifetz, father of the student who recorded the alleged verbal abuse, released another excerpt from the recordings on YouTube.
Posted: April 28, 2012

The Cherry Hill teacher whose lawyers deny that she made the abusive statements to an autistic student heard on a now-viral YouTube video was placed on paid leave Friday.

"I wanted to be proactive rather than reactive," superintendent Maureen Reusche said. "My primary focus is the instructional environment in the building."

Reusche said she hoped to minimize "disruption to our schools" since the identity of former Horace Mann Elementary School special-education teacher Kelly Altenburg was made public in a second YouTube video, released Wednesday by Stuart Chaifetz, the student's parent.

On the videos, which have garnered national attention, Chaifetz has alleged that the teacher was at least present when abusive comments were directed at his son Akian, 10.

The audio-only remarks were captured on a recorder secretly stashed in the boy's pocket. Excerpts are heard on Chaifetz's first video.

Altenburg's lawyers have denied that the teacher was present when the abusive remarks on the video were spoken and a district investigation following Chaifetz's initial complaint also found that Altenburg was not present.

"With respect to the investigation, we have done, and will continue to do, what we believe is right, legal, and fair to all parties," Seth Klukoff, the Board of Education president, and Reusche said in a joint statement Friday.

After district officials learned of the recording in February, Altenburg was moved to Cherry Hill High School West to co-teach a combined class of general and special-education students, Reusche said.

On Feb. 17, Chaifetz sent his son to Horace Mann - where he was in a class for autistic students - wearing a recording device to try to find out why the boy had become violent toward school staff. Akian has communications disabilities, he said.

In a statement released to The Inquirer on Thursday night, Altenburg's lawyers said the teacher was meeting outside the classroom during the hour when many of the abusive statements heard in Chaifetz's first video were made.

Since that video was posted early this week, it has received more than 3.6 million hits. Chaifetz said he had heard from other parents who want to know how to record their children's classes.

At a news conference Friday, Altenburg's lawyers again said their client is a dedicated veteran teacher who did not know about the comments until she was contacted by district officials about the covert recording and after Chaifetz posted his first video. Altenburg does not condone the comments, they said.

Those remarks included an order to "shut your mouth" and a muffled statement that sounds like "Oh, Akian, you are a bastard." Inappropriate adult conversation, including a female staff member's talking about being hung over, also could be heard.

Reusche said Friday that four adults - Altenburg, two educational aides, and an aide substitute - were assigned to the class the day of the recording. Two were identified as having made or been involved in making objectionable statements and no longer work for the district, she said.

They are the substitute and the aide Chaifetz also has alleged made several of the remarks. The substitute was not invited back, and the aide resigned, Reusche said. The third aide, who has not been found to have acted wrongfully, also has been put on leave.

District officials are continuing their investigation into the 61/2-hour audio recording, Reusche said. The quality of recording varies, and it is sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking and what is being said, she said.

Chaifetz said Friday that even if Altenburg were out of the room for the first hour of the day, when many of the offensive comments aired in his video were reportedly made, there were offensive remarks on other portions of the recording.

Those, he said, included derogatory remarks about other children and adults laughing about a statement made about his son. Chaifetz said he was reviewing his recording and might release other portions of it. He said that he e-mailed Altenburg in February after hearing children being told to shut their mouths and that she told him the expression was not used in the class. He claims that was misleading.

Altenburg's lawyers have expressed some concerns about their client's safety. Matthew Wieliczko, one of the attorneys, said his firm was contacted by the father of a 23-year-old student teacher from Minnesota, also named Kelly Altenburg, whose photograph had been put on posts about the Cherry Hill matter. Wieliczko said the father was concerned for his daughter's well-being.

In other developments Friday, North Jersey music educator Pat Gesualdo, head of the nonprofit group Drums and Disabilities, said he had independently filed a complaint against the district and Altenburg in federal court. Gesualdo, who has had no involvement with Akian, alleged that the boy's civil rights were violated.


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.com.

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