WEST PLAINS, Mo.– Five former teachers in West Plains are being charged after police were alerted to the abuse of a non-verbal student with autism by an investigator with the Missouri Department of Social Services.
Vernetta Burgess, Teresia Huddleston, Karen Gore, Barbara Stark and Barbara Baker all face charges of abuse of an elderly, disabled or vulnerable person, and second-degree endangered welfare of a child. Both charges are felonies.
A sixth former teacher was also fired following the school’s internal investigation, but has not been charged at this time.
According to the probable cause statement obtained by OzarksFirst, an officer with the West Plains Police Department responded on March 28 to the report of possible child abuse. The officer met with a social services Out of Home Investigator who had learned through an anonymous hotline call that a 13-year-old non-verbal student with autism was being mishandled.
The investigator then gave the officer school surveillance footage which depicted all five suspects either engaging in the assault of the child, or standing by and observing without reporting the incident, despite being mandated reporters and required by law to report such incidents.
According to the police statement, Huddleston, Gore and Stark all on multiple occasions pinned the child against a desk, using their body weight to hold the child down. Huddleston and Gore also placed pressure on the back and side of the child’s neck during these pinnings.
During one of these pinnings, Gore was seen pulling the child’s hair while the child was restrained and was heard saying, “Yeah? That hurts a little doesn’t it?”
Huddleston, Gore and Stark were also seen striking the child in various ways, according to the police statement. At one point, the child threw an item and Stark responded by charging at the child, shoving them out of their seat and causing the child to hit the wall behind them.
All five of the suspects were seen observing another teacher assaulting the child without reporting that staff member.
These incidents occurred while teaching with Ozark Horizon School, which is part of the Missouri Schools for the Severely Disabled district. Three staff members had already been fired before the West Plains officer began their investigation, and three more were fired at a later date.