A Florida elementary school teacher who was fired for feeding an autistic child hot sauce soaked crayons is being re-instated on the orders of a judge who rejected the school district’s appeal to keep her out of the classroom.
Lillian Gomez was fired from her job at Sunrise Elementary School in Kissimmee, Fla., in February 2012 after school officials found out that Gomez had allegedly put jumbo-sized crayons in a cup and soaked them for days in hot sauce before moving them to a bag that was labeled with the student’s name.
Gomez denied force-feeding the crayons and said she did it to deter the student from eating art supplies, her attorney said.
A spokeswoman for the Osceola County School District told ABC News on Thursday that after losing its appeal, the district is now placing Gomez at a different elementary school to “support other teachers” where she will have access to special needs students.
The details of her re-instatement have not been finalized, including the date or institution Gomez will be returning to, though the official confirmed she will not be welcomed back at Sunrise.
“We lost the appeal, so by law we have to comply by the courts,” said school district spokeswoman Dana Schafer. “We don’t want to come out and say anything bad about the teacher or say anything to worry parents.”
But parents are already worried, especially the autistic student’s father, who said he hoped he would never see Gomez back in a classroom again.
“She proved already that she’s a danger inside a classroom,” Jose Holguin told ABC News’ Orlando affiliate WFTV. “What else can she do to prove to the system that she doesn’t have it?”
The Fifth District Appeals judge order on Nov. 22 backed up a previous ruling by an administrative law judge in August that recommended the district re-instate Gomez as a teacher.
At that time, the administrative judge said while he found her behavior inappropriate, there was no evidence that Gomez was trying to punish the student. Parents at the school were astonished by the court’s decision.
“That’s kind of ridiculous,” said Todd Cinetti. “Maybe she shouldn’t work with children. Maybe she should find another career.”
The school spent more than $50,000 in attorneys fees litigating the case, claiming in court papers that Gomez’s “effectiveness” as a teacher was “severely impaired” as a result of the incident.
But the appeals judge disagreed, saying the “conduct was not so egregious” that firing Gomez could be a decision made by the courts.
Gomez denies force-feeding the student. Her attorney, Thomas Egan, said his client was only trying to help her student by preventing him from eating art supplies.
“I think she made a bad judgment in the way she went about it,” he said. “But her purpose was good.”
The National Autism Society of America told ABC News that there are ways to curb certain behaviors in autistic children that don’t require abusive treatment, unlike Gomez’s case.
“There are also hundreds of school teachers and professionals across the country who can handle challenging behaviors such as pica [eating inedible objects] in a sensitive, human manner that upholds the dignity of each child,” said the Autism Society’s spokeswoman Ashley Parker. “A behavior like eating crayons in a child with autism should not automatically be viewed as a delinquent behavior.” Gomez’s case isn’t the first instance of hot sauce punishment.
An Alaska, a mother of six was found guilty of child abuse for forcing her son to drink hot sauce and take cold showers on a taped segment of the “Dr. Phil” show.