MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A teacher’s aide at Berkeley Heights Elementary School has been charged with two felony counts of “Battery and Assault of a Disabled Child.”
Billy Jean Wyatt of Martinsburg was charged with the two counts after two Pre-K teacher’s aides reported seeing Wyatt pull the hair of a four-year-old non-verbal autistic boy on the playground of the school in October of this year.
Principal Melissa Golliday talked to both aides and to Wyatt and reported the incident to the West Virginia DHHR. The principal also provided statements “from all parties involved” to Martinsburg Pfc. W.A. Parks.
On October 31st, Wyatt was interviewed at the Martinsburg Police Station and was read her Miranda rights.
Wyatt, who has worked at the school since the beginning of the school year, told the investigator she is assigned to take care of the child daily and that he is “a runner.” She told the officer the boy has run toward gaps in the fence on several occasions and has tried to climb the fence to get away. “She advised that he is autistic and non verbal and that she has no training in dealing with this condition,” according to Officer Parks.
The report indicates that on the day in question, the child picked up a rock on the playground and when one of the other aides took the rock away, the child attempted to run away. Wyatt told the officer she reached out to grab him and accidentally grabbed his hair. “She said he has long hair and when she tries to grab him by his jacket, sometimes she gets his hair, but it is never on purpose,” the officer wrote in the report. “She advised that she is only concerned for his safety.”
One of the other teacher’s aides told the officer she believed Wyatt grabbed the child’s hair on purpose because she was angry. The other aide said the child was running towards the playground equipment and was in no danger. The witness said “Wyatt is rough with the kids a lot.”
The second teacher’s aide told the officer she believes Wyatt intentionally grabbed the child by the hair.
Principal Golliday told the officer that training is “offered to all Pre-K teachers and aides on coping strategies” and provided Officer Parks with emails to the staff.
The child’s classroom teacher was interviewed and said after the incident on the playground, the child seemed normal and was not in any distress.
On November 15th, Principal Golliday showed the investigating officer a video from inside the classroom October 25th which shows the child walking between two rows of desks with Wyatt behind him. Officer Parks says the video shows Wyatt “first grabs him by the hair with her left hand, and then her right hand. It appears Wyatt intentionally grabbed him by the hair with both hands and made no attempt to grab his clothing,” according to Parks. “Furthermore, there appeared to be no logical reason for Wyatt to grab him as he was not running or trying to get away.”
The officer said his investigation indicated Wyatt “did pull the juvenile’s hair intentionally.”
A description of the charge of Battery and Assault of a Disabled Child reads “Any person in a position of trust to a disabled child, with supervisory responsibility over the child who unlawfully and intentionally makes physical contact of an insulting and provoking nature to the person of the disabled child or unlawfully causes physical harm to the disabled child is guilty of a felony,” according to information from the Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
If convicted, Wyatt faces a fine of up to $1,000 and one to five years in prison on each charge.
In 2018, allegations were levied against two teachers aides and a classroom teacher at Berkeley Heights Elementary School after abuse of a non-verbal student was reportedly caught on a microphone hidden in the child’s hair by her mother.
The Berkeley County Board of Education agreed unanimously in 2020 to settle civil lawsuits stemming from the abuse allegations.
The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
The lawsuits stem from incidents in 2018 in which the Amber Pack, the mother of a special needs daughter placed a recording device in her child’s hair that picked up alleged verbal and possible physical abuse. As a result of that recording, other parents also became involved in suits against the parties involved.
Former Berkeley Heights Elementary School special education teacher Christina Victoria Lester and aides June Elizabeth Yurish and Kristin Lynn Douty were later charged with single misdemeanor counts of failure to report suspected abuse and neglect, according to court records.
In March of this year, Gov. Jim Justice signed a pair of bills meant to provide more protection for special needs students in classrooms throughout the Mountain State.
SB 261 calls for more frequent viewing of the video from cameras that have been required in special education classrooms the last few years. A school administrator is now required to review the video for no less than 15 minutes, no less than every 90 days. The school system is also allowed to release classroom video to investigators and to attorneys representing students and their families.
HB 4600 makes it a felony for a person in a position of trust to verbally or physically abuse a disabled child, or to neglect to report abuse they witness. That has been a misdemeanor crime.