23 Aug 2014
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504 Suit Filed on Behalf of Bullied, Autistic Cherry Hill Boy - VIDEO UPDATE

Invoking a federal statute, musician-educator Pat Gesualdo is suing the district and Akian Chaifetz's former special education teacher at the Horace Mann school, Kelly Altenburg.

504 Suit Filed on Behalf of Bullied, Autistic Cherry Hill Boy - VIDEO UPDATE

A North Jersey man who overcame a severe childhood disability to become a professional musician is suing the Cherry Hill school district on behalf of 10-year-old student Akian Chaifetz.

Through the nonprofit organization Drums and Disabilities (DAD), the aim of which is to aid autistic children through music instruction, Towaco resident Pat Gesualdo filed a federal complaint Thursday alleging that Chaifetz’s rights were violated by his former special education teacher, Kelly Altenburg.

“Akian was bullied, harassed, and publicly humiliated, which is a direct violation of his civil rights,” Gesualdo told Patch. “The teacher needs to be removed immediately.”

Prior to the filing of this complaint, Altenburg as a result of the .

DAD’s suit names as defendants: Cherry Hill Public Schools, the Cherry Hill Education Association, Horace Mann School, and Altenburg specifically.

Although the boy’s father has and petitioned for Altenburg’s removal in a series of YouTube videos, Gesualdo says Stuart Chaifetz is unconnected with the lawsuit.

Instead, he says, the pair will collaborate with lawmakers to pass zero-tolerance legislation that would fire teachers who violate the civil rights of disabled children regardless of their tenure.

“Stuart wants to work the legislative angle,” Gesualdo says.

As a music educator whose program has been implemented at various school districts throughout the state, Gesualdo says he is not out to threaten teachers’ jobs.

He would like any legislation to provide a window in which a teacher could self-report any incidents to administrators and parents before the situation worsened.

“I’m a teacher too,” he says. “I work with teachers. I train teachers. Nobody wants this because of a couple of crazy teachers.

“But when the union and the school board and the principals come out and defend teachers for their actions, that’s where they have to draw the line,” he says.

The statute Gesualdo has invoked in the lawsuit is the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 of which addresses failures to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities.

Under the law, a finding of wrongdoing may result in “the awarding of monetary reimbursement or other corrective action appropriate to the needs of the child; and appropriate future provision of services for all children with disabilities,” according to the U.S. Department of Special Education.

Although DAD is listed as the complainant in this case, Gesualdo says neither he nor his organization stands to benefit materially from any potential damages awarded from his lawsuit.

“Under a 504 violation that money goes to the state,” Gesualdo says. “At that time they could in fact advocate for the money to the parent, but Stuart didn’t want to get involved.”

Gesualdo says the reason he was motivated to take legal action is because he understands first-hand the nature of both bullying and disability. He suffered from a childhood developmental disorder that saddled him with severe dyslexia, braces from his ankles to his knees, and a crippling stutter.

“I had no fine motor skills,” he says. “Drumming helped re-train the synapses in my brain, and by the time I graduated high school, I had completely alleviated my disability 100%.”

“I have lived every side of this issue,” Gesualdo says. “This isn’t about me. It’s because of all the little boys and girls out there [who face these challenges], and I will go state to state if I have to.”

UPDATE: 11:47 p.m., April 28 — Gesualdo notified Patch tonight that he's posted a YouTube video explaining the suit in his own words. We've linked to it above.

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