Undercover mother: Lee mom seeks teachers' 'true colors' with secret recording

Fort Myers resident Babe Cook kisses her 10-year-old son, Christopher, after working through homework together school on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2012, in Fort Myers.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

Fort Myers resident Babe Cook kisses her 10-year-old son, Christopher, after working through homework together school on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2012, in Fort Myers.

The sound of her 10-year-old son crying in his bedroom confirmed Babe Cook's suspicions.

Something was wrong at school.

"Oh, dear Lord," Christopher said as his mother listened outside the closed door, "why are you doing this to me?"

There had been earlier signs of trouble. For months, Christopher, who has autism, had begged his mother not to take him to Tice Elementary School. Cook said she talked to the teachers to no avail. No one knew the cause of the problem.

Once cheerful, Christopher became withdrawn and started slipping on his schoolwork.

So Cook, a self-described helicopter mom, did something a handful of other parents nationwide have done in recent years — she slipped a recorder into his backpack and recorded his school day.

"The only way to find out the truth," Cook said, "is when they show their true colors — when the principal's not there, when there's no accountability."

The move raises questions beyond the legal realm, questions about a parent's role in their child's education and a teacher's right to privacy in a classroom full of children. At issue: Where is the line between being a proactive parent and going too far?

Does a parent have a right to hear — and critique — what happens after the bell rings each day at school, without the teacher's consent?

The president of the Lee County teacher's union says no. Teachers are trained and experienced working with children, Mark Castellano said, and parents listening to recordings could easily misconstrue what they hear.

"There was a day and age when teachers were trusted," he said.

But to Cook, who was devastated to hear what she says is verbal abuse of her son and other children in his special education class, the answer is a resounding yes. She's now calling for legislation requiring video cameras in every special needs classroom in the country.

"These are our children," Cook said. "This is our right. We drop them off there praying and hoping that God puts decent people in there and they're going to be protected."

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On the recording, which prompted an investigation by the Lee County School District, teachers can be heard raising their voices at the children.

"What I will not, will not, tolerate, is looking at your face," says a teacher identified in the district's investigation as Sharon Petteys. "You don't want to work, you don't have to. You may sit here. But what I have control over is —"

There's a loud noise, which Christopher told his mother is the teacher slamming her hand on his desk.

Audio of Cookie Monster plays and the women comment he's difficult to understand, then one tells a student, "That's what we say you sound like."

At several points in the day, the women talk about Cook, referring to her Puerto Rican heritage and calling her the "buxom mother."

"My theory is, if you were doing such a great job all on your own, your child wouldn't be in here," a woman says with a laugh.

While children are in the room, the women discuss a student defecating his pants, using initials and spelling words out. One woman says, "Ew."

Wendy Fournier, president of the National Autism Association, said any parent, especially one whose child has autism, would be concerned to hear teachers raising their voices or talking about students in front of them.

"A lot of kids with autism don't speak, but that doesn't mean that they can't hear or understand," she said.

Cook said she cried as she listened to the recording.

"This child is the love of my life," she said of her son. "And he deserves better."

District officials investigated two of the four women heard on the tape, including Petteys. As result, Petteys received a letter of caution. The other teacher was not disciplined.

Cook calls it a travesty.

Lee schools spokesman Joe Donzelli said investigators determined some of the comments were not attributable to individual employees, most are not as portrayed by Cook and most were taken out of context.

In response to the letter of caution, Petteys wrote she felt Cook has a "personal vendetta" against her and other employees. There are references in the recording to frustration with Cook, with one woman saying "she exhausts you when you talk to her."

Cook scoffs at that. She said she has been called a lion because she protects her children, but she believes that is a parent's job.

But Petteys argues the fact Cook violated district policy and student privacy should be taken into consideration.

She might also have violated state law.

In Florida, all parties must consent to audio recordings if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. It comes down to whether the teachers have that expectation in the classroom, said Joseph Little, a University of Florida law professor. And that could be argued either way.

Cook seems to be the one who should be scrutinized, wrote Petteys, who expressed fears about what the district's decision would mean later on.

"I am concerned that the Lee County School District has set a precedent by using this recording for disciplinary action," she wrote, "and that this precedent could have even more negative consequences in the future."

■ ■ ■

Cook isn't the first parent to send a child to school with a hidden recorder.

In Alabama, the mother of a child with cerebral palsy planted one on her son's wheelchair and recorded several days in March. The district put an aide and a teacher on administrative leave after the recording of the two scolding her 10-year-old about drooling came to light.

In Ohio, a mother collected audio in April 2011 of an aide admonishing her special needs student about her "belly." The aide resigned.

Most famously, New Jersey dad Stuart Chaifetz created a Youtube video with audio of a teacher and aide having inappropriate conversations and making fun of his son, who has autism. The women call the child a "bastard" and dismiss him when he asks if he can see his dad.

In the video, which has 4.7 million views, a livid Chaifetz demands a public apology and resignation from the teacher after playing audio clips, including one of the women talking about drinking the previous night.

"You know, you would never get away with talking about your alcohol abuse the night before in a mainstream class," Chaifetz says in the video. "And that's the point, isn't it?"

Since posting the video in April, Chaifetz said thousands have emailed him to ask how to wire their own children. It's a move Fournier supports.

"Those children are not going to be able to tell if someone is being cruel to them or hurting them," she said. "For parents, if they suspect for any reason that their child is being mistreated, I say go for it, because that's the only way you're going to find out."

But Castellano said teachers should have the expectation if their class is being recorded, they will first be made aware.

"Parents are welcome to come in," he said. "Nobody can tell them not to. But to secretly record someone without their knowledge and without their permission is inappropriate, period."

Still, Chaifetz expects more and more parents will do so. He has heard from scores of adults still reeling from comments made by teachers.

"It exposed a wound that has just been there but not many people have talked about it," Chaifetz said of his video. "And that is the fact that everyone talks about kids bullying each other, but it's rare that people talk about teachers doing it."

After hearing Christopher praying that day in April, Cook said she promised no one would hurt him again. She moved him to a different school and says he's happy there. But she worries about the other children at Tice Elementary.

"If this is one random day, what are these children being exposed to?" she said. "What if we had audio in there every day? What would we have discovered?"

It's her concern for them — and other children around the country — that she said pushed her to fight the result of the district's investigation and to push for cameras in classrooms.

"I'm not trying to protect just Christopher now," Cook said. "I'm trying to protect all children."

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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