Educators arrested after abuse allegations

SUMMERVILLE -- It was not an everyday sight.

Four Knightsville Elementary School educators in orange jail garb, handcuffs and leg irons stood before a judge Wednesday concerning allegations that a teaching assistant abused autistic students and that a teacher and administrators failed to report it.

Dorchester County sheriff's investigators say the alleged abuse in the special education department involves holding hands over a child's mouth and nose, dragging a child by the hair and striking one on the head.

The Sheriff's Office launched an investigation after receiving a report last month from someone outside the district, Maj. John Garrison stated in a news release. The investigation led to the arrests of the four educators, all of whom live in Summerville.

Heather Martin, 38, a teaching assistant who worked with special education students, was charged with nine felony counts of unlawful conduct toward a child.

Rebecca Piersol-Crosby, 38, a lead special education teacher, was charged with three felony counts of unlawful conduct toward a child and four felony counts of misprision of a felony, which means neglecting to report a crime.

Assistant Principal Mary Rita Watson, 47, and Principal Anita Ruff-Putillion, 42, each were charged with one count of failure to report child abuse.

All of the educators turned themselves over to authorities Wednesday. They were then arrested, attended a bond hearing with their respective attorneys and released on their own recognizance.

According to the attorneys, none of their clients had a prior criminal record.

Dorchester County Magistrate Janice Simmons set Martin's bail at $90,000; Piersol-Crosby's at $50,000; and Watson's and Ruff-Putillion's at $1,000 each.

She set court dates for Martin and Piersol-Crosby on Jan. 4 and for Watson and Ruff- Putillion on Dec. 9.

Before deciding on bail, Simmons told the educators "teaching is a noble profession. But it's also disturbing to read the affidavits."

The affidavits include allegations that while working in a classroom for children with autism, Martin:

• On several occasions, to quiet a child, held her hands over the child's mouth and nose for up to 15 minutes.

• Dragged a child for about 10 feet by his hair to a time-out area.

• Grabbed a kneeling child by the hair and forced him into his seat.

• Grabbed a child by the arm so hard it left red marks and bruises.

• Threw pencils, erasers and paper clips at children and laughed when they wondered what had hit them.

• Struck a child in the back of the head with an open hand.

The affidavits state that Piersol-Crosby was the classroom teacher and was in the classroom when Martin held her hands over a child's mouth and nose, and while she threw things like pencils and erasers at children, and did nothing to stop it.

The affidavits also state that Piersol-Crosby repeatedly threatened a witness to an incident of alleged abuse that the witness would lose her job if she kept talking to people and that "what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom."

Family members and friends of the educators, visibly shaken and some in tears, packed the tiny courtroom to show support. The judge allowed some of them to speak. All of them said the women were exceptional and dedicated educators who had never been in trouble in their lives.

Nobody was in the courtroom to speak on behalf of the alleged victims.

None of the educators are currently working at Knightsville Elementary, but three of them continue to work for Dorchester District 2.

Martin's lawyer, Abigail Walsh, said that on Oct. 20, District 2 officials gave Martin a choice between being terminated and resigning. Martin resigned, Walsh said.

Piersol-Crosby is working in the district's special services department, said Pat Raynor, the district's public information officer.

Watson is working as a fifth-grade teacher at Oakbrook Elementary School and Ruff- Putillion is working as an assistant principal at Beech Hill Elementary School, Raynor said.

District officials haven't yet had time to review the charges or reports, Raynor said. They will soon review the latest information, consult with school board members and attorneys and take further action if needed.

District officials last month reassigned Knightsville's principal and two assistant principals after they learned from the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office about one alleged incident of abuse.

It was reported to law enforcement officials by a psychologist whose patient allegedly witnessed an incident of abuse on Aug. 20. It was that report that set off the investigation.

A new team of administrators is in place at Knightsville Elementary. Wally Baird, former assistant principal at Beech Hill Elementary, is the new principal. Claire Sieber and Nicole Ramsey, who were assistant principals at Spann and Newington elementary schools, respectively, are Knightsville's new assistant principals.