A judge slaps a schoolteacher and her volunteer aide with high bonds for allegedly taping down 6-year-olds for misbehaving. BY MATTHEW I. PINZUR AND CHARLES SAVAGE email@example.com
A veteran schoolteacher and her classroom volunteer, charged with using tape to bind misbehaving students to chairs and a blackboard, received higher-than-usual bonds -- and a verbal backhand -- from a Miami-DadeCounty judge on Friday.
Vonda Christie, a first-grade teacher at Coral Gables Elementary, was given a $50,000 bond, which she posted about She is charged with five counts of child abuse, but police said she only watched while volunteer Ivon Nieves Marrero bound the five students, all 6 years old, for unruly behavior in late August and early September.
Marrero is charged with five counts of child abuse and false imprisonment. She was held on $100,000 bond and was still in custody Friday evening.
''What we have here is five egregious cases of child abuse,'' said Circuit Judge Gerald Klein, responding to an argument for a lower bond by Yery Marrero, who is representing the volunteer but is not related. ``I have a lot of respect for you, but none for your client.''
Marrero has been on probation since February for cocaine possession, burglary assault and grand theft. An e-mail from Christie to the judge in that case showed she was aware of Marrero's record and still allowed her to work in the classroom.
''Who knows what other information she had to go along with that,'' said Ronald Manto, Christie's attorney. ``Whether that constitutes a crime or just bad judgment is another issue.''
Lawyers for both women have denied the accusations, suggesting the students' parents are trying to generate a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade school system.
''Children of that age can be almost be led into saying anything,'' Manto said. ``Children don't make very good witnesses.''
Many parents in the Coral Gables neighborhood where Christie taught for her entire 15-year career came to her defense following Thursday's arrest.
Alita Patterson, whose daughter was in Christie's class several years ago, called her an ''understanding, caring and kind'' teacher who took extra time to help her daughter learn to read at her own pace. Patterson said Christie also mentored an emotionally troubled boy whose home life had disintegrated.
''She has a little system of rewarding the children who have left her class,'' Patterson said. ``My daughter is now in fifth grade, but when she makes the honor roll, she goes and shows Miss Christie and gets a reward -- a pencil, an activity book. So she's kept in touch with these children through all these years.''
Patterson also said that Christie's methods of discipline were always something like extra homework, nothing physical. She said she didn't believe the teacher had anything to do with the tape incident -- and regardless, the charges were overblown.
''I don't believe that putting tape on somebody constitutes child abuse,'' she said. ``Inappropriate? Absolutely. Child abuse? Absolutely not.''
Darby Plummer, president of the Coral Gables Elementary PTA, said she had known Christie since they were both students at Coral Gables High School. Plummer said she always thought of Christie as a ``caring, amazing person.''
''I hope it's not true for the school, for the kids who it could have happened to, and the kids that could have witnessed it,'' she said. ``And for Ms. Christie's sake, I hope she wasn't involved, because I think the world of her and that continues to be my lasting feeling. I just have hope that it will all work out well.''
Evelyn Moore, a fifth-grade teacher and the union steward at Coral Gables Elementary, said she had the highest respect for her colleague and did not believe the charges.
As testimony to Christie's character, Moore said she was an adoptive parent and a devout Jehovah's Witness who never tried to impose her beliefs on anyone.
''It's almost surreal,'' Moore said. 'You just can't imagine this happening. We all do pretty much the same thing . . . We understand what it is to discipline students. We know where you draw the line, and we just don't do that kind of thing. And if you ask me if I believe she has done anything like that, the answer is an emphatic `no.' ''
Following standard procedure, the district has placed Christie on ''alternate assignment'' since the allegations were made. She receives her normal salary of around $44,000 for performing administrative duties outside the classroom until the investigation is complete.
The 38-year-old teacher's personnel file shows consistent but unremarkable performance evaluations. She has neither been in trouble before nor earned any special distinctions or awards, according to a copy obtained by The Herald.
Christie earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and early childhood education from the University of South Florida in May 1988.
Christie applied for a job teaching elementary students with the Miami-Dade school district shortly after graduation. She also said she was interested in coaching volleyball and softball and would like to be a club sponsor for cheerleaders.
Plummer said Christie had been on the volleyball and softball teams in high school, and had also been involved in student government.
''I have chosen teaching for my profession because I have the desire to help educate young ones about our rapidly changing society, and to help those same people to become functionally literate which is an essential tool for survival,'' Christie wrote in her application.
She got the job.
In every annual evaluation in her file, every category -- including classroom management, teacher-student relationships and professional responsibility -- was checked ``acceptable.''
Few remarks are found in her files to supplement the checklists, though in 1992 her principal wrote, ``Ms. Christie is very concerned about her students.''