In May of 2012, we learned that a student at Walt Disney Elementary School in a class of non-verbal special needs students had been exposed to peanuts, his allergen, because the teachers had the kids make peanut butter sandwiches as part of an alphabet lesson on the letter S, causing an allergic reaction. The entire special education staff consisting of two teachers and three paraprofessionals was fired, not because of the exposure, but due to the cover up that occurred after the incident.
I repeat, this exposure happened to a non-verbal student, who couldn’t remind the teachers that he’s allergic to peanuts. He was completely dependent on them to keep him safe in his classroom, and his parents’ trust in his teachers was violated. My heart goes out to them because of the teachers’ betrayal.
This past week, we finally learned the names of the two special education teachers responsible for this incident. They are Keri Watkins and Ann Gigstad, who are pictured below.
It was reported that the teachers “spun a web of deceit” to cover up the exposure of the student to peanuts. In fact they allowed him to taste a peanut butter sandwich during a class activity, then hid the peanut butter and other supplies from the activity in a diaper pail. Official documents made public advise that he broke out in an itchy rash and his eyes swelled. The teachers misled the boy’s parents and school administrators about how he came in contact with peanut butter, saying that he may have picked up traces of peanut butter while in the lunch room. The non-verbal student couldn’t tell his parents what happened, so this may have seemed like a perfect plan.
Thankfully, a student teacher notified her college adviser about the incident, and the college contact the school. This too is in the official documents just released. Both teachers resigned, as did the three paraprofessionals. State disciplinary proceedings against the teachers ensued.
We learned last week that based on a state investigation, the Nebraska Professional Practices Commission had recommended revoking the teachers’ teaching certificates for one year. The Nebraska Board of Education was to consider approving that recommendation this past week.
The Commission members ruled that the teachers had “failed to be truthful” that is, THEY LIED, when questioned by Millard county administrators. Making a fraudulent statement or failing to disclose a material fact for which the educator is responsible is a violation of the Nebraska Administrative Code. A puzzling statement was made by Brian Halstead, Assistant Education Commissioner and General Counsel for the Nebraska Department of Education that “Parents deserve to know the truth also, even if they are difficult to deal with.” Is he accusing the parents of this child of being difficult and blaming the victims?
Teacher Gigstad testified that Teacher Watkins told her she saw the student put the sandwich in his mouth and spit it out, and that the two teachers decided NOT TO TELL THE MOTHER there was peanut butter in the classroom. Instead, they mutually agreed to say that he may have contacted peanut butter in the lunch room. She further testified that Watkins had “forgotten that the student had a peanut allergy” and said “I cant. I can’t tell his mom. I can’t.” Excuse me? This alone makes them unfit to teach in my opinion: When you have a student with food allergies or asthma, their medical condition needs to be constantly front of mind, so that you can recognize symptoms and activate their emergency protocol immediately when needed.
Gigstad and Watkins made “a quick decision that they really didn’t think through and now regret.” A student teacher testified that the two teachers told her and the other paraeducators who worked in that room not to say anything about what happened. Teacher Gigstad split hairs in her testimony by saying “she never told them to lie, only to let Watkins answer questions about it because she was the teacher.” It’s interesting to note that Watkins did not testify at the hearing.
I was shocked to read that Rick Wade, an attorney representing both teachers (potentially a conflict of interest), said that “the student’s health needs were never in jeopardy. They were never ignored. There was never any risk of harm to that particular student.” The student was taken to the nurse and picked up by his parents (previous reports said 911 had been called). He characterized the problem as solely the lack of full disclosure by the teachers. Attorney Wade has refused to comment on the case to the press.
The situation goes from bad to worse. As part of Teacher Gigstad’s severance agreement, she received a recommendation letter from the district, which was read by her lawyer to the Commissioners. She was described as hardworking, an active leader with good evaluations, and there was no mention of the incident in the letter.
This matter gets even worse: The very next day after this story broke, we learned that the teachers received a less severe penalty than the state commission recommended. The Nebraska Board of Education granted leniency to the teachers and decided that they will have their teaching certificates suspended for one year, which means they will automatically be reinstated after the suspension. Remember, this incident occurred over one year ago, and the recommended penalty was revoking their teaching certificates for one year, which would require them to apply to have them reinstated after a year. The penalty they received is already over.
Only Watkins appeared at the Hearing. Brian Halstead, Nebraska Department of Education attorney, stated that “Her peers, her fellow colleagues, classroom teachers and school administrators believe a one year revocation is warranted for lies that were told.” but, the Nebraska Board of Education reduced the recommended punishment from revocation to suspension, dating back to last April when both teachers resigned. This decision restored their teaching certificates effective immediately.
Attorney Wade stated that Gigstad “[Has] been punished. She’s punished herself. She’s learned her lesson, and she’s sacrificed much.” Gigstad is now employed as a special education teacher in the Atlantic Public Schools in Atlantic, Iowa (she was certified to teach in Iowa before coming to Nebraska). It was reported that Watkins may no longer be employed in K-12 education since the incident. Attorney Wade stated that although Watkins is eager to maintain her teaching certificate, she is afraid of going back into the classroom, scared to make the same mistake. I encourage her to never return to the classroom, since clearly the protection of allergic students is still not front and center in her mind.
May your allergic children always be safe and protected in their classroom by teachers who truly care about their health, well being, and inclusion, and may communication between the teachers and you always be open, truthful, compassionate, and kind.
To share this story, use the Share buttons below, or copy and paste this link: http://blog.onespotallergy.com/2013/05/peanut-butter-cover-up-this-gets-ugly/