Did a teacher fabricate a student assault to collect disability?By Tim Fleck Thursday, Apr 27 2000
This spring Houston Independent School District officials continued a tradition established last year: a pat-yourself-on-the-back press conference. It featured videos of unnamed district employees on disability leave caught on candid camera in feats of unsuspected physical prowess.
Yet for all their self-proclaimed diligence, officials did not highlight an incident in which a Holland Middle School teacher accused a 13-year-old seventh-grader of assault last November, and promptly took off on continuing assault leave at full pay.
If looks could convict, Juan Carlos Aguirre would probably be bound for a Texas Youth Council facility right now. At six foot three and 320 pounds, the boy dwarfs his classmates. The son of Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant Julia Aguirre also has a history of disciplinary violations and was in a behavioral adjustment class taught by 36-year-old Regina Wilson.
Aguirre's court-appointed attorney, Jim Sullivan, an idealistic young lawyer married to a court translator, recalls that the chief prosecutor told him he was crazy to take the case to trial. He predicted a speedy conviction.
It didn't turn out that way.
At the trial two weeks ago a jury in Judge Kent Ellis's juvenile court listened as Wilson broke down in tears on the witness stand. They quickly found Aguirre innocent. Afterward, several irate jurors asked Sullivan who they could contact to get perjury and fraud charges filed against the teacher.
In his closing argument, Sullivan contended that the case was about not an assault, but an insurance scam. "And the only guilty person in this case is Ms. Wilson, and she is scamming us taxpayers out of our hard-earned money."
To Sullivan, the case is about a teacher violating her professional integrity and trying to criminalize a student to justify a highly questionable disability claim.
In a brief telephone interview with the Insider, Wilson insisted she had been seriously injured by Aguirre, was "shocked" by the jury verdict and had been let down by the judicial system. She also declined to say when she would go off disability and back to work. HISD spokesman Terry Abbott indicated officials were not familiar with the case. He did not reply further before press time.
The case does not discredit legitimate claims by dozens of HISD teachers who are injured yearly by rowdy and sometimes violent students. But it does point out the power of a teacher's word to bring serious charges against students, and the potential benefit to a teacher in doing so.
The Aguirre incident occurred just before Thanksgiving break last year. HISD police received a call around 1 p.m. that a teacher was lying in the hallway outside her classroom at Holland, an east Houston campus located between I-10 and the Ship Channel. When officer Richard Cook arrived, he found Wilson sprawled on the floor, complaining that her back hurt and she could not move her legs. She identified Aguirre, who was standing in the hall, as her assailant and said she wanted to file charges.
Police took Aguirre to a juvenile detention facility, where he later called his mother and asked for help. The school staff apparently violated district policy by failing to notify the family that officers had taken Aguirre away from the campus.
Wilson told the investigating officer she was inside the classroom when Aguirre tried to leave, and that he pushed her out the door and into a wall. Had she stuck to that story, Aguirre likely would have been convicted.
As Sullivan pointed out to the jury, Wilson told numerous conflicting versions of what happened. In court testimony, she claimed Aguirre slammed the door on her, briefly knocking her unconscious. Medical records indicate Wilson told emergency room personnel she had been standing outside the classroom and was knocked to the floor when Aguirre pushed the door open.
Wilson's injuries also seemed open to question. The teacher admitted she approached 50 doctors before finding one who would certify she had suffered a lumbar strain. Her own medical records and a police report indicate no visible injuries or bruises after the incident. A Methodist Hospital report from the same day notes that when distracted Wilson did not react to being touched in areas she had claimed were painful. An Xray showed no indication of back or leg problems.
Wilson's claim of assault was supported by teacher's aide Carolyn McDonald. But the aide's credibility was damaged when she testified that she had given the officer her account of the incident, and the officer testified that she had never talked to him.
Two of Aguirre's honor roll classmates testified he never touched the teacher or slammed the door on her. One of them, 13-year-old Juan Loza, recalls that Aguirre asked the aide if he could go to the restroom, and she told him to "go ask the teacher" outside in the hall. "He opened the door to ask her, and she fell," Loza remembers. "Then she started shaking like she was having a seizure. Carlos is standing there and he asks, 'Are you okay?' "
Loza's mother, Sylvia, is a caseworker for the Texas Department of Human Services. She says that at Holland there is tension between blacks, who make up a majority of the student body and staff, and Hispanics. When there are incidents, Hispanic students tend to be blamed, she says.
She recalls the day her son was bloodied when he arrived home on the school bus. She complained to the principal. "I wanted to know why I wasn't notified, and why they would put a child with blood on his face and shirt on the school bus without calling me."
She recalls that Wilson initially told her nothing had happened to her son in class. But at a later meeting with the principal, she says, Wilson admitted she had had to call a janitor to "clean up the blood" from a fracas involving several students.
School records indicate that four days before Wilson filed the assault charge, Aguirre's mother and sister complained to the school that Wilson had struck him on the head with a book several times for acting up. No action was taken. Attorney Sullivan says the timing raises the possibility that Wilson may have targeted the student for retaliation because of his own assault claim.
Sullivan says school officials should take a hard look at both the management of Holland Middle School and Wilson's continuing free ride for trying to put a 13-year-old in a cell.
"The only person benefiting from the filing of the assault charge is Ms. Wilson," he told jurors in the trial. "The only person who's collected money and still collects money is Ms. Wilson. If anything, she should be prosecuted.
"But you know what? I doubt she ever will be."
At a minimum, don't look for another self-congratulatory press conference by the district brass to announce the outcome of this disability claim.