Trust is on trial in abuse case
By Tiffany Lankes,, February 8, 2009


Florida law requires anyone who suspects child abuse to report it to the Department of Children and Families abuse hot line.

The law puts special emphasis to report on people in certain professions, including teachers. These mandatory reporters must give their name when they make a report. Other callers can stay anonymous.

Failing to report child abuse is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. The state Department of Education can also revoke a teachers’ license.

The number is (800) 96-ABUSE.

NOTE: As a general rule, the Herald-Tribune does not identify children who may have been abused. But for this story, the parents of the children involved asked that they be identified. Those parents said they want readers to learn something about their children, including how much they depend on other people for their care. The quotes in the story are from direct interviews conducted by the reporter, and from investigative reports compiled by police and school district investigators.

The parents listen intently as the prosecutor reads off the number of times Diana O'Neill is accused of abusing four severely mentally disabled students while a teacher at Venice Elementary School.

T.H., nine.

T.M., five.

A.S., 10.

O.D., 24.

A.S. is Patty Sherknus' 9-year-old son, Adam. Born with Down syndrome, Adam cannot speak and needs help going to the bathroom. He is in school to learn basic skills, like how to feed and dress himself. Classroom aides told police that O'Neill repeatedly hit him on the head with another child's arm brace, binders and water bottles.

O.D. is Katie DiPierro's 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, who functions at the level of a toddler because she was born missing a chromosome. The aides said O'Neill kicked and hit Olivia, and one time wrapped her in a weighted blanket, pushed her to the ground and watched as she hit her head on the floor while struggling to free herself.

State law requires school employees who even suspect abuse to call a hot line so authorities can investigate.

Yet police learned that more than a dozen school employees said they witnessed or were told that O'Neill abused her students as far back as 2002, and did not report it.

It was not until two classroom aides came forward in January 2008, with a log detailing what they say are dozens of instances of abuse, that Principal Theresa Baus called the hot line after being advised by then-Associate Superintendent Lori White.

Police arrested O'Neill, 46, in February 2008. She is to stand trial Monday on four counts of child abuse.

White, now superintendent and the only school employee who agreed to be interviewed for this story, would not discuss the details of O'Neill's case.

White said her focus is on educating staff about their responsibility to report abuse, not disciplining employees for past actions.

Other school employees said they were told not to discuss the case with the Herald-Tribune.O'Neill, who was moved into an office job and continues to draw her nearly $80,000 annual salary, has declined to comment.

O'Neill's attorneys and supporters, including officials with the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association, have said that O'Neill's classroom aides mistook appropriate teaching techniques for abuse.

O'Neill's attorneys, Catherine Sloan and Denis deVlaming, said they would not go into specifics of the case.

DeVlaming did say that reports of what aides saw were grossly exaggerated in police reports, and that in some cases the aides contradicted their original story when deposed.

O'Neill's attorneys have submitted an extensive witness list that includes experts and co-workers who the attorneys said will explain O'Neill's actions, and how they would be beneficial to the children.

The trial will also show that the accounts in the police reports were exaggerated, deVlaming said.

"Once we took sworn depositions we got a much different story," he said. "The police reports portrayed these as intentional acts, if not outright torture."

Co-workers who expressed concerns gave a litany of reasons for not reporting them to state authorities. Some said they did not have evidence. Others said they feared retaliation from the teachers union because O'Neill was a school representative. Others said they did not think it was their responsibility.

Several employees who told their supervisors said administrators dismissed the events as accidents, leaving no record in O'Neill's public personnel file.

Baus, the principal, was concerned enough to warn O'Neill at least twice about getting too rough with her students. Both times she sent O'Neill back to teaching upon the advice of her supervisor John Zoretich, the school district's director of elementary schools.

Failing to report child abuse is punishable by up to a year in prison and the state can revoke an educator's license. None of the school employees involved have faced consequences.

Parents of six students in O'Neill's class over the years told police and the Herald-Tribune that they also noticed bruises or suspicious marks, but never called authorities.

They said that their children bruise and get hurt easily, so when O'Neill explained the injuries as accidents they believed her. Some said they did not think Baus would take their complaints seriously.

More than anything else, they figured that if something was wrong, someone would have reported it.

"It seems like they have so many systems in place to keep these things from happening," DiPierro said. "I put a lot of trust in the school system. I trusted this wasn't going to happen."


O'Neill came to Venice Elementary in 1990 to take one of the most challenging jobs in the school system -- helping severely mentally disabled children learn to feed themselves, walk, speak and go to the bathroom.

There are few options in Sarasota County for these students. Parents can send them to schools, such as Venice Elementary, designated for children with autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities. Or they can go to Oak Park School in Sarasota, which serves only severely disabled children.

The parents in O'Neill's class said they wanted their children to be around others who are not disabled, so they chose Venice.

In her 18 years at the school, O'Neill earned a reputation as a competent educator with a tough-love approach. Some co-workers and parents said she was bubbly and upbeat. One friend referred to her on an Internet chat board as "Margaritaville chill."

But several co-workers and parents told police that O'Neill had another side. They described her as a "bully" who got rough with her students when they did not do what she wanted and used her position as the school liaison for the teachers union to intimidate co-workers.

O'Neill mentored and trained aides with little education or experience working with special-needs children.

Former aide Vicki Burns came to O'Neill's classroom straight out of college with no teaching experience and leaned on O'Neill to train her.

When she questioned O'Neill about being rough with the children -- prying open a girl's mouth and shoving a spoon in, for example -- O'Neill said she was using accepted teaching techniques. Burns believed her.

The first time anyone complained about how O'Neill treated students was in 2002. Former Venice Elementary Principal Emile Quinn said he walked into O'Neill's classroom and saw her screaming at a student, calling the child names like "stupid" and "idiot."

"What she did to that child, no teacher would ever do to a regular ed child because they would go home and tell their parents," Quinn told police last year.

Quinn said that at the time he wrote a memo about what he saw and sent it to Zoretich, the district's elementary schools director. Zoretich called Quinn and told him that the union was accusing him of harassment.

There is no record of the incident in O'Neill's public personnel file, or any documentation indicating that anyone followed up on it.

After spending 18 years at Venice Elementary, Quinn left for another school the following year and retired shortly after. Baus replaced him in the fall of 2002.


Katie DiPierro worried so much about sending her daughter to kindergarten in the fall of 2005 that she spent the first weeks of school in the classroom.

But O'Neill told DiPierro she needed to keep her distance if she wanted Olivia to become independent. So DiPierro set her angst aside and left her daughter in the care of the veteran teacher.

Then Olivia started coming home with bruises.

DiPierro said each time she asked the teacher what happened, O'Neill said Olivia had fallen or bumped her head. Because she cannot speak, Olivia could not tell her mother any different.

DiPierro was not the only parent with questions.

About a month after Adam Sherknus started in O'Neill's class -- the same year as Olivia -- he came home from school rubbing his arm. His mother took him to see a doctor and discovered the arm was fractured.

Patty Sherknus said when she asked O'Neill about it, the teacher said she had no idea what happened.

Adam came home with bruises and red marks just about every month, but as with DiPierro, O'Neill always had an explanation for his mother.

One time there were strange red marks on his neck. O'Neill said he got them from a safety belt. Another time Adam lost a tooth, and she said it happened when she was cleaning out his mouth, according to police reports.

Sherknus documented problems by sending notes to O'Neill. She also tried to be in the classroom more often.

But the more aggressive she became in questioning the teacher, the more O'Neill pushed her away, she told the Herald-Tribune.

Eventually, she said O'Neill would not let her come to the room unless she stopped in the office first and someone let O'Neill know she was coming.

Sherknus said she considered taking her concerns to Baus. But when she had brought up issues before, she felt the principal did not take her seriously.

One time she wrote O'Neill a letter voicing concerns about the red marks on Adam. She put copies in a folder and sent them to school with Adam, asking that O'Neill distribute them to other employees. It was not until after O'Neill's arrest that she learned no one else got them.

Sherknus and DiPierro now say they regret not following up more on their concerns. But they trusted that the school system would take care of their children.

"So many people see our kids every day," Sherknus said. "My assumption was that if something was wrong, someone would see it and report it. You would just never imagine that there were other people who would see these things happening and not say anything."


When police interviewed Baus after O'Neill's arrest, the principal told them she never had reason to believe O'Neill was abusing her students before October 2007.

Investigative records show that on at least two previous occasions staff members came to Baus with concerns.

In 2005, teacher Pam Mirville said she and her classroom aide, Tamara Cooke, saw O'Neill shove a plastic card into a child's mouth so hard it caused him to bleed.

Mirville reported the treatment to Baus, who called Zoretich for advice. Since Baus did not see a mark and the child did not go to the clinic, Zoretich told her to talk to O'Neill about the situation. He also told her to spend more time in the classroom to get a better idea of the kinds of situations O'Neill had to deal with.

No record of the episode made it into O'Neill's personnel file.

That same year Cooke told school therapists Eugenia Batalia and Theresa Miers that she saw O'Neill jam a spoon into a student's mouth so hard she caused it to bleed. Another time Cooke said O'Neill forced an unsteady child to stand behind a chair until he fell down.

The therapists told Cooke she needed to report her concerns, and went to Baus to set up an appointment.

Baus recently told police that when she asked Cooke about the situation, Cooke said that she did not know that Baus was talking about.

The next time the therapists heard about it was when Baus chastised them for spreading gossip, according to police reports.

Then, in October 2007, Cooke and another aide went to nurse Mary Pillsbury and told her O'Neill had lied about how two children got hurt.

In one instance, Adam Sherknus came to the clinic with scratches on his neck. O'Neill said the marks were from the seat belt, but the aides said they saw O'Neill put the child in a harness and yank him, according to police reports.

In the other case, the aides reported that O'Neill pushed Olivia DiPierro to the ground, causing her to hit her head. O'Neill told the nurse that Olivia lost her balance and fell.

Pillsbury told Baus -- at least the third time in a three-year period that staff members expressed concerns to the principal -- and advised the aides to start documenting any other problems.

Baus called Zoretich and a district special education supervisor, Kathy Devlin, to ask them for advice. They told her that since the mother had not not gone to the principal with concerns that "it didn't rise to a level of discipline on their part," according to Baus' police statement.

Baus went back to O'Neill and talked to her about the concerns that had been raised, their second conversation. Baus told O'Neill she "was very concerned about the number of children being injured" in O'Neill's classroom, gave her a stern warning and sent her back to teaching.

Baus later acknowledged that she should have noticed warning signs, such as O'Neill's insistence on covering the windows to her classroom.

"In my mind, if she was rough, it wasn't intentional," Baus told investigators. "I didn't think anything more of it."

Three months later, on January 29, 2008, Pillsbury, the school's nurse, saw Cooke, O'Neill's aide, in the hallway.

"I can't do this anymore," Cooke told her.

Cooke and Cindi Anderson, the aide in the class, had been keeping a log since October that listed dozens of instances when they say O'Neill abused her students, hitting them, kicking them and one time leaving an autistic boy next to a wall and laughing as he banged his head into it.

Pillsbury told Baus, who called Cooke and Anderson into her office. They showed her their four-page handwritten log, telling Baus that if they noted every instance of O'Neill abusing the students it would have been 10 pages long.

Baus called her supervisors to ask what she should do.

That same afternoon DiPierro went to O'Neill and asked her again how Olivia was injured.

DiPierro remembers that O'Neill got defensive, so she tried to lighten the conversation.

"I don't think you're beating her up or anything," DiPierro told the teacher.

"Well that's good," DiPierro remembers O'Neill telling her. "Because other people do."

The next morning Baus met O'Neill as she was entering the school, handed her a suspension letter and told her to go home. At 3 p.m., she called state authorities.

An hour later she called DiPierro, Sherknus and the other parents to tell them what had happened. DiPierro was shopping in Wal-Mart when she got the call.

She dropped her bags in the middle of the store and started crying.


Sherknus starts each morning going through the same routine.

Dress Adam. Feed Adam. Help Adam go to the bathroom.

The boy sits on a stool and sticks out his legs so Sherknus can put his shoes on. He is 9 years old, but his mother still talks to him with baby talk.

"Are you going to go to school?"

"Can you put your foot in there?"

She asks questions knowing she will not get any answers. Adam can only make groaning noises.

Sherknus lets the morning routine drag on. The routine task of taking her son to school has become trying.

"That's a really hard walk," she says. "Taking him into the school every morning."

But each morning, she takes her son back to the same classroom where police say his teacher abused him.

Her days are no longer spent doing consulting for businesses. Instead, she is getting ready for the trial. She pores over court documents that she keeps in a box. She and DiPierro carpool on the hourlong round trip from Venice to Sarasota for court proceedings that often only last a few minutes.

When the stress builds up she talks about it, mostly to DiPierro.The two women have forged a newfound friendship that helps them get through so many difficult moments.

Although their children were in the same class together for three years, the two mothers never knew each other.

People come up to them in the grocery store to ask if Adam and Olivia are the children in O'Neill's class. They ask the mothers if they really think O'Neill did it.

Adam and Olivia each have a sibling, and now those children do not want to go to school. The mothers cannot blame them. This year Sherknus decided to home school her other son.

When DiPierro's 7-year-old son talks about good guys and bad guys, he always asks about Olivia's teacher.

The boy wanted to go to camp this summer, but DiPierro would not let him.

She has trouble trusting anyone with her children.

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