Teacher at Pensacola charter school accused of breaking leg of 3-year-old with autism

·5 min read

This story has been updated to include a statement from Capstone Academy

A teacher at a Pensacola charter school is facing criminal charges after allegedly breaking a 3-year-old's leg in January.

Samantha Jo Forester, 35, is charged with aggravated child abuse in connection with the injury, and the child's family is suing Forester's employer, the Capstone Academy in Pensacola, over allegations of negligence.

The child's mother, Leah Owen, told the News Journal that she was happy to be off the waiting list and to have her daughter, Gabby, finally enrolled at the academy.

"Having a nonverbal child, you put a lot of trust in whoever takes care of her," Owen said.

Gabby is autistic, so her mother was relieved to enroll her daughter in an early education program at a school that specializes in therapies for children with learning disabilities. According to the school's website, it is the only one in the area to incorporate therapies with specialized education for children from birth to 5 years old.

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What happened the morning of Jan. 13?

On the morning of Jan. 13, Owen got off work from her night shift as a nurse and took her son and daughter to school as she always did. She went home and to sleep but was woken up a couple of hours later by a call from her daughter’s teacher letting Owen know her daughter was injured.

Owen rushed to the school.

"When I did see her, she was on the floor with three therapists around her with ice on her leg, and I immediately took her to the emergency room," Owen said.

At Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital, an X-ray revealed Gabby's right femur was fractured and required emergency surgery to repair. Gabby went home in a full body cast.

"She's a very vulnerable plaintiff. She's nonverbal and autistic and attended for adaptive learning," said Ashley Armstrong, an attorney with The Watson Firm who is representing the family in what she says is an imminent lawsuit.

Armstrong said her firm will seek damages for negligent hiring, supervision and retention practices at the school, as well as any damages for Gabby's personal injuries allegedly caused by Forester.

In a written statement issued Monday, Capstone officials said, "We understand and share our parents' expectations of placing their special needs children in a safe and comforting learning environment and our hearts go out to the family of this child who was injured. Our standards of care have always been set high and remain so today and our history validates that. This was an unfortunate event for everyone involved.

"It is important to know that we have always abided by strict hiring and employment practices that include background checks, training, and specialized certifications and recertifications. It is also important to know that our teachers are here by choice; they are passionate about working with children with very specific behavioral needs.

"While our preference would be to share the facts and correct misinformation and uninformed commentary on social media, we are unable to do so at this time in order that we move through the legal process with integrity. We will continue to cooperate with law enforcement and the Department of Children and Families as this matter proceeds forward.”

Samantha Jo Forester is arrested

Forester was arrested Thursday after the Florida Department of Children and Families contacted law enforcement with the complaint regarding what happened the morning of Jan. 13.

According to a report from Escambia County Sheriff's Office, Forester reported that Gabby's dress was wet, so she took her to the bathroom to change her clothes. As she changed her, the teacher reported Gabby was having a meltdown and tried to twist out of her arms.

The report said Forester heard a loud pop and said she wasn't sure if Gabby had hit her head.

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The incident occurred in a bathroom without cameras present. Armstrong said it is easy for teachers at the school to know where the blind spots are in the classroom when it comes to what surveillance cameras can and cannot see.

Owen said her daughter's dress was ripped but not wet. She also said she noticed that her daughter's earring was ripped halfway out and that the child had what looked like fingernail scratches and other bruises on her body.

"Gabby is shell-shocked. She's having nightmares and can't articulate her pain level to her mother," Armstrong said.

Investigators determined after speaking with medical providers who treated Gabby that more force would be required to break the child's leg than what Forester described had happened.

Deputies charged Forester with aggravated child abuse. She was booked into Escambia County Jail on Thursday and released later that day on $10,000 bond.

Corrective surgery left Gabby's injured leg shorter than the other, something Armstrong said could result in long-term implications for Gabby as she continues to grow.

Owen has stayed home from work with her daughter since the incident. Armstrong said other parents have also come forward with complaints against Forester.

Owen said she has noticed setbacks in Gabby's progress since the incident and discontinuation of her therapies at the school. Life at home has been rough as the cast caused rashes on Gabby's body and many sleepless nights.

"It's been very hard," Owen said. "Especially for a child who is autistic, it’s been especially traumatizing."

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Capstone Academy teacher Samantha Forester allegedly broke child's leg