David Di Pietro appears on WSVN Channel 7

Carmel on the Case: Locked In A Closet?

The Broward State Attorney’s Office is investigating a special needs teacher on possible child neglect charges. A mother says the way her autistic son was punished by the teacher crossed the line. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is On the Case.

WSVN — Julian kisses mom: “Good boy.”

As a 4-year-old with autism Julian Maldonado has trouble expressing himself, but his mother has no trouble sharing her thoughts.

Jennifer Maldonado: “I was angry. I was really angry.”

What sparked Jennifer’s outrage is the way she says her son was punished by a teacher at Tedder Elementary in Deerfield Beach.

Jennifer Maldonado: “They had caught the teacher locking him inside of a storage closet. When he tantrum, when he was upset, not wanting to do the activities and he was put away.”

Jennifer says the principal told her Julian’s teacher Sharon Vaninger sent the boy to time-out in this storage closet after it was reported by a school staff member. The 10 by 10 space is filled with computer cables and school supplies.

Jennifer Maldonado: “It was not a time-out room. It was not a play room. Typically it looks like a server room it had internet cables and dangerous items within the closet.”

A police report reveals this may not have been an isolated incident. An assistant told authorities Vaninger locked Julian in the closet every day at least three to four times a day for about five minutes at a time.

Another classroom helper said it happened at least once a day but Vaninger doesn’t close the door.

David Di Pietro: “A child (take out age) with these issues could hurt himself in there. He could get caught up in the wires, there were other chemicals or other things in there. He could harm himself.”

Jennifer says her son is unable to tell her what happened.

Jennifer Maldonado: “They can’t come home and say, ‘Mommy I was in a closet today, I missed snack time, I missed nap time, I missed my activities with my friends.’ He can’t tell me that.”

She is also concerned about this tape wrapped around Julian’s shoes so he could not remove them when he got upset.

Jennifer Maldonado: “I actually had a discussion with her and told her, ‘Please don’t do that anymore,’ and she continued to do it. I thought being trained in the field of working with children with autism, that she would have a better way of handling something like that.”

As the family looks into its legal options, Broward Schools tell us the 11-year veteran teacher is on administrative reassignment until its own investigation is complete.

Carmel Cafiero: “Ms. Vaninger, this is Carmel Cafiero from Channel 7.”

We tried to talk to Vaninger about the possible criminal charges. A woman at her address would not open the door, but her attorney released this statement: “While the case is under investigation there will be no statements made. We will be happy to speak with you once the investigation has been completed.”

If you have a story for Carmel to investigate:

Miami-Dade: 305-627-CLUE
Broward: 954-921-CLUE
E-mail: clue@wsvn.com