Northern Virginia

Virginia Teacher, Aide Accused of Abusing Disabled Students to Get No Jail Time

Former Fairfax County teacher Cylmeera Gastav and her assistant Cecelia Benavides entered Alford pleas, meaning they admitted there is enough evidence that a jury would find them guilty

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A former teacher and teacher's aide in Fairfax County, Virginia, accused of abusing non-verbal disabled children entered plea agreements on Monday that would result in reduced charges and no jail time.

Cylmeera Gastav and her assistant Cecelia Benavides worked at Freedom Hill Elementary School in what's known as an IDS classroom, working with students who have severe disabilities. They were originally charged with cruelty and injuries to children and assault and battery.

Both women entered Alford pleas on Monday, reducing felony charges to misdemeanors and recommending no jail time. Benavides entered the plea for six counts and Gastav for two.

The Alford pleas mean the women admit there is enough evidence to find them guilty. They would also be barred from working with children.

One victim's mother teared up as she spoke to News4 outside the courtroom.

"Frustrated, in pain, the wounds take a long time to heal. To this day, I am still tormented. Why did they treat my little boy this way? Why did they treat him this way? What was their fury?" said Sandra Gomez, the mother of one of the victims. She spoke in Spanish and News4 translated her interview into English.

Gomez' son Steve has a disability in which he is non-verbal and prone to seizures. He is one of six children allegedly abused.

Steve's big brother, Joey, said he was angry about the reduction in charges.

"I was just outraged," he said.

Allegations of abuse of special needs students at a Fairfax County school reinforces concerns about how the school district treats students with disabilities. Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey reports parents filed a lawsuit against the district in October.

Detectives began their investigation in Sept. 2019 when a teacher noticed bruising on a student and contacted Child Protective Services.

Incidents prosecutors described in court Monday are graphic. In one instance, a child was dragged from a wheelchair and thrown to the floor, they said. Another child was dragged around the classroom by their feet, and children were slapped and hit for misbehaving, as well as force fed to the point of choking, according to prosecutors.

The allegation in Steve’s case is that he was shoved when he cried. But his family believes he too was force fed because he now resists eating.

"In my little brother's development, to see him go down a lot, because he’s special needs to begin with and now his development was, like, stunted," Joey said. "I’d like to see her be punished for that because right now we’re suffering sometimes."

A public health attendant in the school reported the assaults, which she says began in February 2019 and continued into the following school year. She kept a journal that detailed incidents of hitting, pushing, dragging and slapping the disabled students.

The employee reported her concerns to Principal Scott Bloom. Bloom spoke with Gastav, but he did not notify law enforcement.

A former teacher and teacher's aide are charged with assaulting students with special needs. The school principal is also indicted for not reporting the alleged abuse. News4's Jackie Bensen reports.

An IDS teacher also observed and even videotaped some of the alleged abuse by Benavides. Court documents report one video shows Benavides walking up to a student and hitting him with her right forearm in the chest. The student fell to the ground. Another video shows Benavides shoving a rolling chair into a student seated on the ground.

Prosecutors told the judge Monday they agreed to suspend all jail time in the plea deal because if the case went to trial, they believed the outcome would likely be the same.

But the judge has not yet signed off on the plea agreements.

"The plea hasn’t been agreed to yet so hopefully it changes and hopefully justice is served," Joey said.

A hearing to finalize the plea agreements is set for early September.

The detective investigating the allegations reported the public health attendant witnessed a conversation in April 2019 in which Gastav told Benavides to deny any allegations she might be questioned about.

Benavides was interviewed by police on Sept. 24, according to the police affidavit. She reportedly denied most of the allegations but did admit to dragging a student across the floor by his foot and to grabbing students inappropriately. She told police she had difficulty controlling a particular student and admitted she may have made mistakes.

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