SARANAC LAKE - A teacher's assistant has been accused of mistreating a 10-year-old autistic boy he worked with as a full-time aide at Petrova Elementary School.
Village police arrested Michael Heymann, 24, on Thursday and charged him with endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. His attorney, Thomas Grue, entered a not-guilty plea on Heymann's behalf during an arraignment proceeding in village court.
The criminal case stems from a Dec. 19 incident at the school.
Michael Heymann leaves the Saranac Lake village courtroom Thursday after his arraignment.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"It was a report from the school that possibly involved an allegation of abuse," said village Police Chief Bruce Nason. "The way it was reported to us was that a parent contacted the school and indicated that their child had some marks on their neck that was left by possibly a teacher's assistant."
"The defendant did handle (the boy) in a forceful manner using inappropriate language and in a threatening tone, causing (the boy) to become upset and fearful," police officer Casey Reardon wrote in a Jan. 17 report.
The incident took place in a "relaxation room" at the school where disruptive students are sometimes taken. Heymann and the boy were the only ones in the room at the time.
The boy's parents told the Enterprise they became suspicious in mid November after noticing bruises on their son's body.
"(He) was telling us Mr. Heymann was hurting him, and we saw questionable bruising on his shoulder and neck area, and under his arm," the boy's mother said. The Enterprise isn't identifying the child or his parents because the newspaper doesn't identify, directly or indirectly, alleged victims of abuse.
The parents said their son can be difficult to deal with and has behavioral issues that initially led them to question his account of what was happening at school. So instead of reporting the alleged abuse to school officials or police, they decided to hide an audio recording device on their son, sewing it into the waistband of his pants, unbeknownst to his teachers or school officials.
"He knew he had it on him," the boy's mother said. "We told him he was a secret spy. We also told him we would be able to hear everything he was saying."
When the boy's mother listened to the recording of what happened Dec. 19, she contacted the school the next day.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, this isn't good,'" she said. "(Heymann) took him out of his classroom. They were walking very fast to the point where (Heymann) was pulling him. My son went in and sat in his chair in the quiet room, and when (Heymann) closed the door, (Heymann) just totally lost it. He grabbed him by the arms, and was shaking him and screaming at him. Our son is like, 'You're squeezing me. You're hurting me,' and you can hear him crying."
The parents initially didn't tell the school about the recording. School officials immediately reported the situation to police, who interviewed Heymann that same day.
In a Dec. 20 statement to police, Heymann said he took the boy to the relaxation room because the boy was behaving badly in class. He said he sat in a chair behind the boy "until he became unsafe by flailing his body while sitting in the chair.
"For safety, I placed my hands on (the boy's) shoulders in an attempt to keep him from harming himself. (The boy) stopped flailing and started to relax. ... At no time did I ever put my hands on (the boy's) neck nor did I ever choke (him). The only physical contact that I have had with (the boy) is putting my hands on his shoulders when he was unsafe, holding his hand to guide him to the relaxation room and periodically throughout the day a hug or a pat on the shoulder for reassurance and positive reinforcement."
The parents also played the recording for the Enterprise. The voices are somewhat hard to hear since the recorder is inside the boy's pants, but it's clear that the adult the parents said was Heymann was angry when he and the student entered the relaxation room. The boy is heard asking the aide to stop squeezing him, then began sobbing and uttering a string of curse words at the aide, who had apparently calmed down by then.
The boy's parents later told police about the recording. Police took a statement from the child's mother and interviewed the child on Dec. 30, 11 days after the incident. Nason said his officers listened to the recording and felt there was enough evidence to charge Heymann with endangering the welfare of a child but not assault or anything more serious.
"By the time we spoke to the child, there were no marks that were visible, and we have no photos of marks that the child may have received," Nason said.
At Thursday's arraignment, village Judge Kenneth McLaughlin released Heymann to appear in village court at a later date. Heymann declined to speak to the Enterprise outside the courtroom. His attorney also said he had no comment.
School Superintendent Gerald Goldman provided the Enterprise with a prepared statement but otherwise declined to speak about the matter.
"The school employee (Heymann) was interviewed by (Petrova Principal Josh) Dann on December 20 and denied the allegation," the statement reads. "The school district prohibited the employee from working with the child after December 20 while the investigation was pending."
Heymann resigned from his position at Petrova on Dec. 31. The Saranac Lake school board voted unanimously to accept his resignation following an executive session at the board's Jan. 2 meeting.
School officials also say they reported the incident to the Franklin County Child Protective Services and the state Department of Education's Office of School Personnel Review and Accountability. An Education Department spokeswoman told the Enterprise its office doesn't comment on pending investigations.
Heymann, a native of Tully, near Syracuse, was hired by the school district in August 2012 as a long-term substitute teaching assistant, taking over for an aide who was out on medical leave. He is a certified elementary school teacher and earned his teaching degree from SUNY Plattsburgh in 2011. Heymann was also a seven-time Divison III All-American at SUNY Plattsburgh in cross-country and track and field.
Heymann has also worked at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, where he served as a dorm parent and provided English-as-a-second-language support to the private school's students, according to the NSA website.
"National Sports Academy was made aware of this accusation through the Adirondack Daily Enterprise," NSA Head of School Kim Dow wrote the paper Thursday in an email. "Mr Heymann was employed at NSA from September until December and left of his own accord."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.