Otoe County defends life skills recording
NEBRASKA CITY – The Otoe County Attorney’s Office has dropped criminal charges against two paraeducators and felony charges against a Nebraska City teacher, but continues to pursue a misdemeanor neglect charge involving a life skills scandal last September.
Melissa Valenta, who is described by her defense attorney as an innocent teacher who spent three decades in her profession with no incidents, is contesting the legality of a tape recording. Her attorney, William Bianco, says the recording does not incriminate Valenta, but was illegally obtained and cannot be authenticated.
In a brief filed Monday, Otoe County Attorney Jennifer Panko-Rahe contends a disabled child consented to the tape recorder because he was shown what it does and voluntarily put it in his pocket each day. The state further claims the mother could have provided legal consent for the recording.
The brief says the recording is authenticated by the child’s mother, who told investigators she recognizes certain voices.
The county prosecutor says the recording “is at least an audio rendition of what happened.”
The student’s individual education plan has been shielded from the public, but a police affidavit says the 17-year-old student was enrolled in life skills class and was directed to perform tasks despite a known heart risk.
Panko-Rahe says that after the student was excused from a class activity in the school gymnasium, balls were still thrown in his direction, allegedly prompting Valenta to tell the student to get up because he was an easy target.
The county attorney dropped charges against two para-educators who had been assigned to the life skills class. The teacher and both paraeducators lost their jobs.
Minutes of an Oct. 10 school board meeting say the school was trying to hire a full-time special education position to fill a need created by the inability to fill seven open special education para positions.
The defense has also asked the court to subpoena Omaha and Lincoln media outlets, who produced interviews with the student’s mother regarding alleged abuse.
An affidavit by Officer Casey Fertig says the mother purchased the recording device and asked the student if she could put it in his pocket. The affidavit says the mother told the student that the device was going to listen to what was occurring at school.
At a court hearing, the mother testified that the student voluntarily put the device in his pocket on subsequent days.