SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Miranda Escoto claims she is the victim of adult bullies who retaliated against her for blowing the whistle on abuse and neglect in the Sweetwater Union High School District's special education programs.
She filed a civil lawsuit against the district in 2013, but SUHSD is fighting back. The case is scheduled to go to trial in September.
Escoto has worked at several different schools since she joined the district in 2004, but claims she's witnessed problems at all of them. Her lawsuit states shortly after she began working in the Sweetwater district Escoto, "began making reasonable good faith complaints to staff and teachers about some of the teachers bullying and pushing special needs students."
Escoto told Team 10 she's seen district employees shoving, kicking and punching special education students. Escoto claims the teachers sometimes give students shameful nicknames. Once, she told us a teacher told an aide to "put the kid away" because she's so ugly.
"They treat them like, I don't want to say it, but like animals," Escoto said.
She shared photos that show students alone on the playground. In one, it appeared one student was on the ground, another stood nearby in a walker. There was no sign of an aide taking care of them. In other photos, adults appear to be paying more attention to their cell phones than to the students they're supposed to be caring for,
Escoto's claims she complained to her principal and even to the former superintendent.
"I thought he would do something, but he didn't do anything. He talked with my principal. My principal was so mad at me that he took me away from my classroom," Escoto recalled.
Her co-workers were also angry. Escoto claims they began mocking her and talking behind her back. She was accused of stealing clothing. Someone left a copy of a flyer called the "Union Code of Conduct" in her mailbox. Part of it read "I will not criticize any union colleague."
She says the retaliation began in 2005 and continues to this day.
We asked Escoto why she didn't leave the district. She said it's because she loves the children she was hired to care for. “I felt a lot of compassion for them and I thought what’s happening to me, it's nothing compared with what’s happening with them."
"If you read her case, it delineated multiple types of abuse in multiple situations, in multiple school settings, and it is hard to wrap your mind around that," said child advocate Judy Neufeld-Fernandez, who is supporting Escoto in her fight against the district.
She says Escoto's complaints ring true for many school districts, not just SUHSD.
"Abuse is allowed to fester and flourish in our schools because our schools really aren’t about our kids," said Neufeld-Fernandez. "Our schools really are heavily, heavily influenced by the unions. Teachers unions make it very clear that no one is supposed to speak negatively about another colleague and in Miranda’s case their union code of conduct is in print."
The president of the Sweetwater Teacher's Association told Team10 he doesn’t believe the flyer came from any of his members.
When Team 10 first approached the district about the case a spokesman said they couldn't discuss pending litigation. This month, when we offered a second chance to comment, we received this statement from SUHSD spokesman Manuel Rubio:
"As a mandated reporter, had Ms. Escoto witnessed any abuse of students, she was obligated by law to report it to law enforcement and/or CPS for investigation. Despite nearly five years of litigation, during which time she has been continuously employed by the District, Ms. Escoto has failed to produce any evidence that she made a report of anything which would be considered abuse of a student. It is unfortunate that Ms. Escoto has made such baseless accusations as it has only caused a distraction in the classroom by drawing attention away from learning and wasting public funds which could be better allocated to student services."
Team 10 followed up by asking the district whether Escoto made complaints and if so, how many.
We also wanted to know if the complaints were investigated by the district and what the findings were, or if the district forwarded the complaints to another agency for investigation. This is the statement we received from Rubio:
"Since the trial in this matter is imminent, we do not feel it is appropriate to discuss the specifics of the case. However, according to Ms. Escoto’s testimony in deposition, the most serious thing she claims she reported was a bus driver holding his arm across the doorway of a bus to prevent students from entering. As stated previously, the District believes it is unfortunate that Ms. Escoto’s focus is not on the well-being and education of the students she was hired to assist. The District will reserve further comment until the conclusion of the trial.”
Escoto said she will continue her fight, even if it ends in the loss of the job she loves.
“We have to be the voice and the eyes for those who cannot speak, or see. They are there and they are the perfect victims."
The Sweetwater Union High School District special education aide who is suing the district over claims she was retaliated against for reporting abuse and neglect has been placed on administrative leave.
Miranda Escoto was ordered to stay away from all SUHSD campuses until further notice.
Team 10 reached out to the district for confirmation. We received this statement from spokesman Manuel Rubio:
"The District cannot comment on personnel actions. Ms. Escoto’s recent accusations implicate a number of student and employee privacy interests. The District is committed to ensuring student safety and privacy rights as well as the rights of the District employees being accused of misconduct for the first time on the nightly news. All allegations of this nature are and will be fully investigated. However, the District is troubled that Ms. Escoto’s desire for publicity is overshadowing her obligations to respect the privacy and dignity of the students she claims to be trying to protect. The District stands behind its special education employees and vehemently disputes the comments made by Ms. Escoto to the press. The District is proud to have hundreds of special education staff who have dedicated their lives to helping the most vulnerable and challenging of students, and is saddened that instead of being recognized for their sacrifice and years of exemplary service, they are accused of misconduct in order to further Ms. Escoto’s pursuit of personal and financial gain."