A former Liberty ISD teacher and two teaching assistants are each being charged with four counts of child endangerment and abandonment after an investigation into four separate incidents of abuse of a 5-year-old special needs child in April 2021.
The teacher, Melody Michel LaPointe (47), and the two instructional assistants, Tarah Michelle Tinney (33), and Augusta Danielle Costlow (27), were arrested earlier this month, over a year and a half after the initial alleged abuse occurred.
Reports allege that the women confined the child to an isolated room for hours at a time, where he reportedly fell and injured himself at one point. They refused to provide him with necessary medical attention or tend to his injuries.
The child eventually consumed his own feces and urine. The indictments allege that the women failed to feed him and allowed for the consumption of inedible bodily fluids.
Texas Student Behavior Management
The Texas Administrative Code 89.1053 outlines the “procedures for use of restraint and time-out” for teachers to use with students receiving special education services under the Texas Education Code (TEC).
In this rule, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) makes it clear that all students, including students with disabilities receiving special education services, must be treated with dignity and respect.
The code designates time-out as a means of behavior management to provide the student with the chance to regain self-control while being separated from other students for a limited time.
The student should be put in a room without a door. If there is a door, though, it should not be locked, and the exit must not be “physically blocked by furniture, a closed door held shut from the outside, or another inanimate object.” The child must have the ability to leave the room at any time if needed, and nothing should impede that.
Time-out is only to be used if it is part of the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) decided upon by the school and the student’s parents.
Restraint may be used by a school employee, volunteer, or independent contractor only in an emergency—when the student’s behavior poses a threat of imminent, physical danger to themselves or others, or serious property destruction.
However, restraint must be implemented in such a way that it protects the health and safety of the student, and it must not deprive the student of basic human necessities.
The code also stipulates that if restraint is used on a student, the school administration and the student’s parents must be notified within a day of the events leading up to restraint and whether other de-escalation tactics were also used.
Reports have not disclosed whether time-out or restraint was included in the student’s IEP. Nevertheless, the tactics used by the teachers were not only disrespectful of the student and his family, but they were also malicious in intent.
The Three Women Investigated and Arrested
Following the allegations of abuse, Liberty ISD alerted CPS and law enforcement and proceeded to investigate the three women, removing them from the classroom but allowing them to continue to work.
After the investigation concluded, the educators were reported to the State Board for Educator Certification, and Liberty ISD shared their report with law enforcement.
To date, LaPointe’s and Tinney’s teaching certifications are still valid, though they are flagged as “under review” by the TEA’s Educator Investigation Division. The State Board for Educator Certificates website does not show a teaching or educational aide certification for Costlow.
Tinney and Costlow resigned and found work elsewhere after the investigation wrapped up. LaPointe resigned before the investigation began and found work as a teacher for Dayton ISD, where she worked from June 2021 until August of this year.
A spokesperson for Liberty ISD told Texas Scorecard that administrators gave Dayton ISD multiple warnings, both written and verbal, about the allegations against LaPointe.
In August of this year, LaPointe began teaching at Bonnie P. Hopper Primary School in Goose Creek Consolidated ISD.
The week before Thanksgiving, law enforcement had collected enough evidence to charge and arrest the three women.
Tinney and LaPointe were taken into custody on November 16, and Costlow was arrested two days later. LaPointe’s arrest occurred during Bonnie P. Hopper Primary School’s dismissal.
Bond was set to a total of $60,000 per person. All three women were released on bond on November 18, 2022.
Goose Creek CISD
Following LaPointe’s arrest, Goose Creek CISD emailed a statement to parents with students at Bonnie P. Hopper Primary School:
In an effort of full transparency, we want to inform our families of an incident that occurred yesterday during dismissal. A teacher at Bonnie P. Hopper Primary School was arrested yesterday by Liberty County constables. The cause for arrest occurred in Liberty County and is not affiliated with Goose Creek CISD in any way. The teacher is currently placed on administrative leave with pay, pending the outcome of an investigation, after which the District will take appropriate disciplinary action. As this is a pending legal matter, Goose Creek CISD will allow the legal process to proceed and refrain from further comment. We want to ensure our families that the safety and security of your children is our #1 concern. We thank you for your continuous support of our campus and our district.
Parents at Goose Creek CISD want answers as to why the school ignored the investigation flag on LaPointe’s teaching license and the allegations of abuse when she was hired.
In response to these questions and complaints, GCCISD sent out another statement earlier this week. Administrators explained that during LaPointe’s hiring process, she disclosed that she was under investigation for “an incident” in LISD and expected it to conclude shortly.
Furthermore, GCCISD received documentation indicating LaPointe had been cleared of allegations of neglectful supervision. The school’s Human Resources department then contacted someone at her previous school in Dayton ISD, who provided an “excellent recommendation” for LaPointe. GCCISD’s criminal background check conducted on LaPointe revealed no prior criminal history, so they went forward with her hiring.
The district claims that there have been no complaints against the teacher by students, parents, or other staff members.
As of publication, Dayton ISD did not respond to request for comment from Texas Scorecard.
Liberty ISD is actively involved in the prosecution.
“Liberty ISD is continuing to work with the Liberty County District Attorney’s Office for the benefit of our children,” the district’s spokesperson told Texas Scorecard.
An Expert’s Take
Michael Holum of Advocacy Behavior Consulting spoke with Texas Scorecard about this case. Holum is an advocate for children with special needs and their families in their interactions with the public school system.
Holum explained that the student should have had an IEP and Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) that prescribed specific behavior management and de-escalation tactics for the type of scenario that resulted in the student’s isolation.
He added that the student should have been removed from the room and treated immediately when he was observed eating his own excrement.
If the student is nonverbal, Holum explained, he could have been trying to communicate his wants or needs by playing with and eventually consuming his feces. A nonverbal child might resort to this behavior out of desperation, whereas verbal special needs children occasionally enjoy playing with feces for sensory reasons.
From Holum’s perspective, the child likely entered a manic state of desperation or had a severe emotional disturbance that caused him to eat his feces.
Holum praised Liberty ISD for its handling of the situation, specifically their cooperation with law enforcement.
“I really applaud the school district for working together with local law enforcement for bringing this to fruition,” Holum said, “and I really applaud them for getting it to a level that the rest of the community can see. That’s what we really want: transparency.”
The case has been assigned to the 253rd District Court of Judge Chap Cain.