WASHINGTON — They are laughing and smiling in a safe space. Parents hope a backyard game of soccer will help their children heal from the trauma they say they experienced at their school.
"And it just goes to physical fighting, like punching and kicking. I'm crying and screaming in pain because, like, I have no idea what's going on. It was so disorienting. I almost fell unconscious," Russell Barrett, 9, said.
Ryan talked about a confrontation in February with Dave Mazzeo, someone he and his parents trusted. Mazzeo is the administrative director at Echelon Academy in Montgomery County.
He and his wife, Kelly, founded the private school 10 years ago. The school accepts students with a broad range of learning disabilities from Dyslexia to ADHD to Autism and more.
"When I arrived at the school, my son was on the floor face down. The sense I got was that Russell felt like a wild animal. I could tell that he did not feel safe. He said to Dave, 'You hit me in the head!' And Dave did not deny it. He remained silent," said Rebeca Sanchez Barrett, Russell's mom.
Initially, Sanchez Barrett said that she was hesitant to complain. After all, her choices of schools focusing on special education were limited. But, she could no longer remain silent.
A month after that altercation, she filed a complaint with the Montgomery County police. Then, she and several other parents, appealed to the Maryland State Board of Education. MSDE confirms they received the parents' complaints in March of this year.
Rebeca Sanchez Barrett said that even though she was raising the red flag that there were problems at Echelon Academy, she believes the agency responsible for oversight of the school didn't go far enough to address parents' concerns. And, that's when they called WUSA9.
After we started looking for answers, we learned that Montgomery County Police did not forward the allegations for prosecution because child protective services got involved.
As for the Maryland State Department of Education, investigators reviewed the parents' 24 allegations of abuse, neglect and restraint.
We discovered that some of those claims were closed while others were referred to different agencies.
"I was dealing with Maya crying when she would come home. She was isolated," her mom, the Rev. Shell Kimble, said.
Kimble said she began to see the brilliance fading from her 6-year-old daughter, Maya, after attending Echelon Academy for only a few months. Maya has anxiety and sensory disorders as well as ADHD.
"We would have to bear hug her and go up to the shower and turn it on, fully clothed, to get the warm water going and try to calm her down," Kimble said.
Mara Freedman began to question the quality of instruction because her son Alexander was not progressing in class.
"He is very behind in his reading level so they weren't individualizing his instruction. They weren't giving him what he needed," Freedman said.
In addition to the abuse, neglect and restraint allegations, the parents raised issues about how students were learning in the classroom. Those complaints were referred to the Division of Special Education.
According to a MSDE document, investigators cleared the school after observing only one class for 25 minutes, another class for just 10 minutes.
"I would have hoped that the state, with more than one allegation of a child being restrained, of a child having been secluded, that they would have done more," Sanchez Barrett said.
The State Education Department referred the allegations related to restraint to child protective services. The investigation Echelon by CPS did find that "neglect" was "indicated" in the case of Rebeca's son, Russell.
"I was in shock, like, 'Why is this happening?'" Russell said.
A claim the school's dog bit Russell in the lip, a gash that required 12 stitches, that complaint was sent to the health department.
WUSA 9 tried to talk to school administrator Dave Mazzeo who believes these parents are out to tarnish the school's reputation. We asked him for an on-camera interview to tell his side of the story. He refused.
So, we stopped by his home three different times. No one ever answered the door. We were shut out by school leaders and state investigators who told us they do not discuss "ongoing investigations."
"I want the Maryland State Department of Education to hold Echelon accountable. I want the Maryland State Department of Education to reevaluate it's oversight of non-public special education schools," Sanchez Barrett said.
The U.S. Department of Education for Civil Rights requires school districts to report the number of restraint and seclusion cases, but the rules are different in each state.
In Maryland, public and non-public schools are supposed to report cases of restraint and seclusion to the state and the child's parents.
Echelon Academy provided that information in response to the allegations raised by the parents.
The Maryland State Department of Education does not release the numbers by school.
According to a recent data analysis by the agency, there were nearly 13,000 incidents in the state of Maryland involving special needs students being restrained or secluded during the 2017-18 school year.
"Every child deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I think among our moms here, we know that it's critical to make sure that our voices are being heard," Sanchez Barrett said.
See below for the complaint filed by parents to MSDE:
See below for the full police report: