Stuart Chaifetz gave the Cherry Hill school district every opportunity to do the right thing by his 10 year-old son, Akian.
Things had gotten so bad in the special education classroom at Horace Mann Elementary School that Akian’s teacher, Kelly Altenburg, was sending home notes about the autistic boy’s physical aggression toward classroom staff.
Chaifetz knew that something about these reports was odd. Akian had never struck anyone. Altenburg was certainly no stranger, having taught the boy the year prior. He wasn’t hitting any other children—only Altenburg and her support staff.
“I started to see the scars forming, but he was fine when he was home,” Chaifetz said. “It was only when [Akian] went to school that he fell apart, and that is what tipped me off that there was something really wrong.”
Chaifetz, an artist by trade, describes himself as an activist. He’s fought for 20 years to document awareness of various animal rights causes. That gave him the idea to slip a small digital recorder in his son’s pocket to see if he could learn what was setting off Akian at school.
Chaifetz first listened to on a Friday in which he was heading up to rural Pennsylvania to document a dove shoot. Fifteen minutes into the six-and-a-half-hour recording, Chaifetz said he knew he would never allow his son to return to Altenburg’s classroom.
That weekend, as he traveled back and forth from the dove shoot to his home, transcribing the details of his son’s victimization in the evenings and filming an animal slaughter the following day, Chaifetz was drained—physically, emotionally and spiritually.
But his resolve was unweakened. When Chaifetz contacted the district with the evidence he had gathered, he expected that Altenburg and her staff would be shown the door by their bosses. According to his most recent
In an email dated April 5, which Chaifetz provided to Patch, he wrote to Cherry Hill Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Reusche, “to say you have downplayed what happened would be generous...I was asked to trust that you would do the right thing and I was promised this would not be swept under the rug.
“In return, I made a choice not to release the audio to the media and public so that you would have time to deal with this without a major scandal hanging overhead.”
In closing, Chaifetz writes: "You have not heard from me because I put my faith in you to provide a just and responsible end to this disgraceful situation. It is my sincere hope that you will still rise and do the right thing."
District officials wrote back only to tell Chaifetz that they would not discuss any personnel matters with him. When he later discovered that Altenburg and others in her class were still employed by the district, Chaifetz decided that he had to go public to prevent the same thing from happening to another family.
“When I saw that this was going to be hidden and forgotten about, then I realized that I needed to come forward,” he said. “I couldn’t just let my son’s abuse go quietly. I would be just as guilty if I didn’t stand up for my son.”
In less than two weeks, Chaifetz found the support he was looking for: 95,000 signatures on a change.org petition. Twenty-five thousand likes on a Facebook page he created called “ No More Teacher Bullies.” More than 2.2 million views on a pair of YouTube videos. International requests for interviews.
If Cherry Hill Public School district was looking to keep the issue under wraps, it would seem it has failed.
The neglect and outright abuse that Chaifetz discovered on the recordings convinced him that what he was hearing was far from an isolated incident exclusive to the treatment of his son. He described it as “a culture of cruelty” that became impossible to overlook.
“The fact that nobody in that class stood up and said, ‘Hey, leave that kid alone’ tells you that something is wrong,” he said. “Even if [Alterburg] never said a mean word, she had an ethical responsibility to protect those kids, and she did not.”
Furthermore, Chaifetz says that Altenburg lied to him on a regular basis about Akian’s behavior in school, attributing his outbursts to hormonal changes and budding adolescence.
“She was a good fake person,” he said.
Since being removed from Altenburg’s class, Chaifetz reports, Akian hasn’t hit anyone. Although Akian was incapable of verbally expressing his discomfort with the situation, Chaifetz said, he could still feel the pain of his alleged mistreatment.
“On a basic level, [staff members] ignored these kids,” he said, “thinking that all kids with autism are robots. Those wounds are still inside him.”
Chaifetz imagines a day when he will be able to express to Akian the depth of emotions that his story has generated from well-wishers across the continent.
“I hope that he will understand that the whole world had his back,” he said, and “that people poured out love for him.”
Chaifetz hopes to channel that support into legal challenges that would make bullying behaviors such as he discovered in his son’s classroom a terminal offense for educators.
“It’s a tool that I can believe can be used to vocalize politicians that when there’s evidence that you bully a child, you’re gone,” Chaifetz says. “Tenure means nothing, union rules mean nothing, and you’re gone.”