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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.

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.

Michele April 27, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Tenure needs to be done away with. Teachers get it then slack off becauser they are now safe from being fired. Regardless of how long you have been teaching you should be fired if you are not doing your job or as in this case allowing the abuse of a student. Any other person would have, so should teahers with "tenure".
Future Old Angry Italian Guy April 27, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Michele, really? You know this as fact. All teachers? Everyone of them. Everyone. Even the teachers who spend thousands of dollars for graduate degrees in order to learn more and implement this new knowledge in the classroom? And those who get better with their instruction after they have received tenure. The ones who build positive teacher-student relationships and spend hours after school tutoring for free and participating in school functions? Everyone? All of them? You're right, teachers who abuse children - verbally, emotionally, and physically - should be fired. However, lumping teachers who are worthless and have issues with teachers who are the exact opposite is a foolish and ignorant comment. I surely hope you do not any children at home because your stupidity may be contagious.
Proudmomnyc April 27, 2012 at 03:18 PM
You are not a "future" old angry Italian guy... I think you are already there. Sarcasm is anger's ugly cousin. Now to the point, Michele was talking about tenure - and I agree, in almost all other work environments - you are not saved by tenure. Your performance and other fundamentals are measured and if you don't perform well, you can find yourself out of a job. Why should teachers have mandated pay raises and tenure and not be held accountable like the rest of the american work force? I absolutely respect teachers and praise their contributions, however, I don't feel that they should be in their own silo of protection. Accountability. Period.
Porterincollingswood April 27, 2012 at 04:24 PM
"Your performance and other fundamentals are measured and if you don't perform well, you can find yourself out of a job." "...held accountable like the rest of the american work force?" In what land does this happen? Canada? Check out the guys who ran the big Investment Banks when the economy tanked, none of them are currently unemployed. Check out Andre Igoudala. Or Corzine. Adam Sandler. Political incumbents in the US have historically enjoyed a better retention rate than 70's-80's members of the Politburo. I have found very little evidence of accountability being any kind of standard business practice in America.
Krw April 27, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Just to clarify Tenure does not mean you can't be fired. It simply means that there needs to be due process before a termination is made. While we are only hearing one side of this story I can't see how tenure is protecting this teacher in any way. Either there is another part to the story that is not being told or legally the district was playing with fire and got caught by not terminating her. I am all for a change in legislation and for a process that does not stand for such a horrible thing this family is dealing with. No good teacher or compassionate human being would, however to punish all adn take away other rights such as the right to due process is not the answer either. I respect the family and this music guy for making that clear and hope others will not simply go on bashing good educators with unfounded angry ignorant comments.
Future Old Angry Italian Guy April 27, 2012 at 04:51 PM
Mommy, no you're wrong. Michele stated, "Teachers get it and then slack off." That's what we in the civilized world call an exact quote. She was referring to all teachers; if she wasn't, then she should of re-read her comment. And your inane attempt to jump on the anti-teacher bandwagon because a politician tells you to is proof of your ignorance and lack of self-worth. Accountability? Show us all how this should be accomplished, Grand Wizard.
Porterincollingswood April 27, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Next time, just type "me hate union" and be done with it. You can't fire ANYONE out of hand anymore. Union or non-union. If you owned or ran a business you'd know that. I would rather the district took its time, crossed t's and dotted i's legally, then dismissed this individual. That takes time, sadly. The alternative is firing her and then ponying up 1-2 years' salary for wrongful termination (and that would be the out-of-court settlement in all probability). So what's worse?
DoneWithNews April 27, 2012 at 05:23 PM
I can understand the intense emotion. I feel the same way. But anger and justice don't mix. We should all follow Mr. Chaifetz's example: let our hearts feel, but make our minds dictate how we act.
puppydog999 April 28, 2012 at 04:42 PM
FOIG-Get a reality check & try working in the real world-Private sector. Peo get degrees, adv. degrees, take cont. edu courses & put in long hours (my husb. works until 9:30 or 10p.m. every night-seriously!) and puts in time on weekends & travels away from the family every other week without extra compensation. He can be "cut" at any time from his job because they need to "cut back" & not even be given 2 weeks severance pay. Medical benefits can end that day too-without notice. Several of our friends have been forced to take 15% to 30% PAYCUTS, not raises. Over the past 4 to 5 years, I personally do not know of anyone except the teachers who are getting raises. It is a recession. Most people are just happy to be keeping their jobs. Companies are laying off 15% to 25% of their work force, if not CLOSING! You could be doing an excellent job but they need to cut the bottom line. Most companies force employees to contribute $350 - $450/mon.for medical benefits. Want Dental or Eye Care, contribute more. Contribute from own paycheck to their 401K too. The day of pensions are over.There is no other job on the planet earth that you can work for 3 years and be guaranteed a job for life, with raises too. Summers and holidays off. Day ends mid-afternoon. Don't have to buy suits for work. Don't start on teachers not paid enough-Can make up to $100K in Cherry Hill-is more than the ave. household inc. There are some very good teachers but many mediocre/complacent & some need to go.
Krw April 29, 2012 at 01:31 PM
20 years ago people laughed at teachers because we gave up high salaries for security and benefits. The Private sector snubbed stateworkers as a lower class of career choice. Now they still think that but are more angry because their personal choices haven't worked out and they want to punish all including their children's quality of education I guess...Instead of pulling together in harder times and valuing the one thing that actually helps people/ children in hard economic times (education) we bash it and the people involved any chance we can. Continue below:
Krw April 29, 2012 at 01:31 PM
Teachers are contributing more now to their pension and health care. Teachers work way beyond the contract hours too. Teachers don't get paid for time off in the Summer unlike many others who earn PTO. The only people within the last 10 years who have funded the pension fund has been state employees with money from their paychecks.Corzine made one small contribution but that has been it for a LONG time. It's essentially the stateworkers money, not to mention that they don't have a choice, by law they have to pay into it. Stateworkers are paying more now then ever. Most of all is the true fact that whatever you want to say about politics and funding the thought that MOST teachers are mediocre is simply false, you just wrong. Are there SOME yes, should they go YES. But Most are not and this case should not be used to vilify all. I felt I should say some if this because this is exactly the wrong discussion to be having. This all has nothing to do with this case yet this is what people are going to go around saying and bashing teachers making it about themselves and totally missing all the facts.
A Thomas July 09, 2012 at 03:51 PM
1) Does a civil lawsuit include a monetary compensation? If so, it is the already beleaguered Cherry Hill property taxpayer who will bear this burden. Well over half of CH property taxes are for the schools and teacher salaries. Paying for a lawsuit would be highly inappropriate. 2) I was a teacher and even I am tired of hearing the no pay in the summer argument. Teachers generally have an option to have their pay rendered throughout the entire year. If you want pay during the summer, then accept this option.Most people do not get paid for not working. 3) CH teachers salaries are quite good. Some salaries have reached into the 80's and 90's for grade school and high school. Check datauniverse.com. Many top salaried retired as they were afraid of losing their high pensions. 4)A very low percentage is now being paid by teachers for entire family plans. This is following years of free care paid by taxpayers who were required to pay for their own healthcare plans. Be thankful for the low percentage. Welcome to the real world. 5) People contribute to their pensions Many places do not have pensions. Workers must elect to set aside some of their earnings and then this may or may not be matched by the employer. Trust me, they do not want to pay for someone's retirement when they struggle to set aside money for themselves. 6) Not everyone in CH is rich. Contrary to popular thought and attitudes. 7)The economy is bad. People are struggling. CH teachers are doing just fine.

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