$100 million lawsuit alleges abuse cover-up; Fulton won't say if - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

$100 million lawsuit alleges abuse cover-up; Fulton won't say if its investigating employees


Fulton County School District officials wouldn't tell CBS Atlanta News whether it is planning to investigate employees accused of covering up abuse by former special education teacher Melanie Pickens.

"I am not at liberty to comment on any personnel matters or on pending litigation," wrote FCSD spokeswoman Samantha Evans in an e-mail to investigative reporter Jeff Chirico.

Fulton County School District and 28 current and former employees are named in a federal lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages for the alleged abuse of former special needs student, Alex Williams, and a cover-up by district officials.  

The lawsuit alleges Ron Wade, the district's chief human resources officer, blocked a police investigation, lied under oath and destroyed documents to prevent parents from finding out their children had been harmed.

The lawsuit claimed Melanie Pickens, a former special education teacher, abused special needs children at Hopewell Middle School in Milton from 2004 to 2007.  Williams, now 21, was enrolled in Pickens' class during the 2006-2007 school year.

"There's a lot in here. I mean, it's a 147-page document," said Alex's mother, Lisa Williams, referencing the lawsuit in her hands. "There's evidence that clearly shows there were problems."

District employees are accused of allowing Pickens to abuse children by initially transferring her from Holcomb Bridge Middle School when abuse complaints surfaced there and then actively ignoring subsequent complaints at Hopewell.

Williams is nonverbal and lives with multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy and moderate mental retardation.

CBS Atlanta first reported on the abuse and cover-up allegations in 2011. 

According to the lawsuit, Pickens abused Alex every day. She allegedly shoved Alex to the floor, screamed and cursed at him, passed gas in his face and restrained and isolated him for hours in a dark room.

"The reality is, this is going to be a lifelong issue to deal with, and it has changed his life," said Williams. "It's changed how (Alex) has developed, it changes how he approaches life."

It apparently wasn't much of a secret among school personnel that Pickens was abusing her students.

"Pickens would slam Alex face-first into a metal locker so violently that a teacher in a classroom with her door shut could hear Pickens slamming Alex into a metal locker," reads the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, school administrators including former Hopewell principal Frances Boyd, former instructional support teacher Paula Merritt and former area superintendent Vicki Denmark, among others, knew of the abuse and failed to take action to prevent it. 

The lawsuit goes into detail about how administrators allegedly tried to cover up the abuse repeatedly over many years by changing investigative reports, preventing criminal investigations and withholding subpoenaed documents with the knowledge of counsel. 

According to the lawsuit, the district "destroyed, deleted, altered or otherwise not produced documents involving Pickens' abuse of children" to prevent parents from finding out. 

CBS Atlanta, which first reported on the allegations of abuse and a cover-up in 2011, is mentioned in the lawsuit for spurring a criminal investigation. 

"The only reason FCSD ... allowed FCSD police to investigate in November 2011 or thereafter Pickens' abuse of mentally impaired students ... is because of the persistent scrutiny and pressure CBS Atlanta and one of its reporters, Jeff Chirico, applied to Paul Howard, the Fulton County District Attorney."

The Fulton County School District did not immediately respond to CBS Atlanta's request for comment. 

Earlier this week, a Fulton County judge granted Pickens immunity in her criminal case. District Attorney Paul Howard has appealed the decision. 

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