FORT WALTON BEACH — Formal charges of child abuse and child neglect have been brought against three Silver Sands employees who were arrested in January, according to a press release from the State Attorney's Office.
The new charges, which are third-degree felonies, replace a more serious charge of aggravated child abuse that was levied in January. They are in the same classification as the charges Kenwood ESE teacher Marlynn Stillions faced. She was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The employees — Margaret Wolthers, an Exceptional Student Education teacher, and two aides, Diana Lacroix and Carolyn Madison — are accused of "unlawfully and willfully" abusing three young children between Sept. 1 and Nov. 18, 2018. The children are autistic, according to their original arrest reports.
The State Attorney's Office reviewed the case and conducted additional interviews, as well as re-interviewing other witnesses, the release said. The relevant law was also reviewed.
Two of the victims were 8 years old while a third was 10. According to their January arrest reports, the trio punished the children by blowing whistles in their ears and locking them in a dark bathroom.
They all were placed on administrative leave the day after the abuse was reported, according to Steve Horton, assistant superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District. They were suspended without pay at the Feb. 11 board meeting, the first meeting following their arrests in late January.
"These folks are not in our schools, are not interacting with students," Horton said. "In general, when employees are suspended without pay and there are criminal charges out there, we typically have to wait for the outcome of those proceedings before we do anything final."
"It is recommended that the Okaloosa County School District proceed with any administrative actions they feel are appropriate at this time and not wait for the conclusion of the criminal proceedings," the release from the State Attorney's Office said.
When asked to clarify that statement, State Attorney Bill Eddins said that criminal cases like these can take months or even a year to resolve.
"The Stillions case remained pending for a very long time," he said. "I did not want the school system to feel hampered by the possibility that these cases would last that long."
Employees who are suspended without pay continue to receive health insurance benefits, Horton said.
"The charges that have been filed sadden me and neither I, as superintendent, nor the School Board condone actions such as those that are alleged in this case," Superintendent Marcus Chambers said in a written statement. "The District will continue its investigative process and will take all appropriate actions pending the outcome of the investigation and the conclusion of the criminal proceedings.
"Until such time, the employees will remain on suspension without pay."