- Special Projects
On his first day of a new assignment at Kaimuki Middle School, Aaron Hess said, he witnessed a disturbing scene: an educational assistant pouring iced coffee over the head of a student.
Hess, who worked with special ed students to develop their skills, made the required “sentinel report” of abuse to his employer, Bayada Home Care. Bayada contracts with the state to provide paraprofessionals in schools.
But a few days later, Bayada told him that several other people who had been there denied the abuse happened.
Hess said he demanded answers from the school principal and even the state’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, education and student support. Why had he not been interviewed? Had the parents of the student been informed?
Then, Hess said, the case took a strange turn: He found out that Bayada had suspended him at the behest of the state Department of Education. It turned out that he was under investigation.
In an Aug. 4 letter, the DOE prohibited Hess from working in Hawaii schools, saying he had violated contract provisions by using his phone’s video camera to try to document the alleged abuse. And he made his complaint about the iced coffee without understanding the student’s special education plan or collaborating with other staff, the DOE said.
In addition, his emails to the school’s principal had been “demanding, somewhat threatening and disrespectful,” the DOE wrote.
Hess gives his account of what he saw in the video below:
Civil Beat sent the Department of Education a list of questions about the case. Did it disagree with any part of Hess’ account? Were the student’s parents informed? How about Child Welfare Services?
“I can share that the DOE investigated Mr. Hess’ allegations and that the investigation is closed,” DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers wrote in an email.
The department would disclose nothing about the outcome – for instance, whether the educational assistant had been exonerated or disciplined. Nor would it say when the investigation concluded.
Chambers wrote that “since this was a personnel matter and involves student privacy issues, we are limited in what we can share.” But the DOE also did not answer many general questions about its process in such cases.
How, for instance, do investigators reach a conclusion when parties disagree about the central fact? Do paraprofessionals like Hess have whistleblower protection? How does the investigatory process work?
On Monday evening, six days after Civil Beat submitted its questions, the DOE’s Donalyn Dela Cruz wrote in an email, “If a case is brought to our attention and shows suspected abuse, it is reported to police and the appropriate agency. Each case has unique circumstances that are reviewed at different levels, from school, to complex, to department. Where it lands, depends on the nature of the complaint.”
The DOE’s approach to release of information in the case contrasts with recent court rulings in other states finding that, even if a school employee is exonerated, the public has an interest in knowing how the investigation was handled, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of Student Press Law Center, which provides legal assistance to high school and college journalists.
The Washington Supreme Court, for instance, granted The Seattle Times access to misconduct accusations, even when they did not result in a finding of wrongdoing, as long as the names of the accused were redacted.
“If the agency is failing to thoroughly investigate, or overlooking evidence of wrongdoing, the public has an interest in knowing that.” — Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center
A judge in Wisconsin, meanwhile, found that the public had an interest in school misconduct cases even if they were deemed to be without merit to see whether the accusations had been thoroughly investigated.
Greater public access seems to be the trend nationally, LoMonte said, regardless of whether the accusation leads to disciplinary action.
“If the agency is failing to thoroughly investigate, or overlooking evidence of wrongdoing, the public has an interest in knowing that,” he said.
Hess said he discovered what he thought would be his life’s vocation while working for a company that provided security to San Francisco office buildings. He’d come home exhausted and unhappy, while his girlfriend at the time, who worked as an aide to special education students, seemed energized by her job.
He asked to shadow her at work, and quickly fell in love with the job. He came to Hawaii five years ago, and though it was a struggle to get by on a paraprofessional’s salary, he said he saw doing meaningful work in a place he loved as the realization of a dream.
Hess was feeling optimistic when he started the new assignment June 28 as an assistant for a special education student. The student faced several challenges, but had a good attitude, Hess said. Other staff members at the school were friendly and helpful.
“You have to stand up and do the right thing. I couldn’t live any other way.” — Aaron Hess
But during the first break, he said, the day took a dark turn.
In the absence of information from the DOE or other parties involved in the case, who declined to respond to Civil Beat, it was impossible to confirm his account. In support of his story, Hess provided emails, letters, a video recording and a phone conversation he recorded with Bayada’s executive director.
On his first day at Kaimuki Middle School, he said four or five school workers were sitting on benches around a picnic table during a break when a non-verbal student — not the one Hess was assigned to — knocked over the iced coffee of an educational assistant, spilling about half of it.
The educational assistant, who was standing behind the student, then took the remaining contents of the plastic cup, Hess said, and slowly poured it over the student’s head. As it streamed down the child’s face, he froze, then started crying, Hess said.
Hess said he was so disturbed by the incident that he told the student services coordinator and Bayada that he would not be returning to Kaimuki Middle School. In the meantime, he said he filed the required “sentinel report” with Bayada.
Several days later, he said, Bayada informed him that the other witnesses denied that the educational assistant had poured iced coffee over the student’s head. Instead, they said, the assistant had mildly reprimanded him for spilling the coffee.
Hess then got in touch with Frank Fernandes, the middle school’s principal.
“I expect the abuser and those who witnessed the abuse and then proceeded to lie on their Sentinel Reports to be removed immediately,” Hess wrote in an email. “I will also need confirmation that the parent was notified.”
After Fernandes replied that he was continuing to investigate, Hess complained that he, as the key witness, had not been interviewed and said that the parents should have been notified the same day so they could preserve any evidence, such as coffee stains on the student’s shirt.
He wrote that “a crime has been committed” and raised the possibility of going to the police or the media.
Hess also forwarded the email to Suzanne Mulcahy, DOE’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and student support. Mulcahy became involved when one of Hess’ Facebook friends saw an account he had posted, minus the name of the school or any of the parties, and shared it with Mulcahy, who she knew socially.
Mulcahy replied that Hess had been “out of line” by demanding to know if the parents had been informed and whether the educational assistant had been fired, according to an email he provided to Civil Beat. She wrote that the tone of his emails to Fernandes, the principal of Kaimuki Middle School, had been “a bit disrespectful and in fact threatening.”
Mulcahy did not respond to a request for comment, and the DOE said that it would be speaking on behalf of school employees contacted by Civil Beat.
The day after Mulcahy’s email, the DOE informed Bayada in a letter that Hess was now part of the investigation and would be suspended.
Hess did not see the letter until a couple of weeks later. In the meantime, Carl Pierce, listed on Bayada’s website as executive director, told Hess that the suspension was common practice during an investigation to keep the parties away from each other and it was nothing to be concerned about, according to a recording Hess made of the call. Pierce offered to try to find him a lower-paying job working on one of Bayada’s contracts with the Department of Health.
Pierce did not respond to Civil Beat requests for an interview.
Bayada called Hess last week to tell him of the DOE letter barring him from Hawaii schools under Bayada’s contracts.
He’s been struggling to pay bills while getting his certification as a SCUBA instructor. He said he’s been shaken by the DOE’s handling of the case. He also wonders if it has anything to do with his public advocacy over the past two years for better pay and working conditions for paraprofessionals.
But he doesn’t regret his actions.
“It’s been feeling like a turning point,” he said. “You have to stand up and do the right thing. I couldn’t live any other way.”