Two Alabama teachers have been put on administrative leave after the mother of a 10-year-old student with cerebral palsy attached an audio recorder to the bottom of his wheelchair and caught them scolding him about drooling, among other things.
Jose Salinas, or as his friends and family call him, "Little Joe," is in fourth grade at Wicksburg High School, a public school in Newton, Ala. Jose has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair at school, but is high-functioning and can walk with a walker and loves to talk at home about Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
His mother, Melisha Salinas, a nursing student, knew he didn't enjoy school and would come home sick many days, but he would tell her he had a "good day" every day when she asked.
"We knew he hated going to school. We tried every medical test we could think of, but we never could find anything wrong," she said.
A psychologist told Salinas, 31, the problem could be stress or anxiety, but she didn't know the source.
One day, a little girl in Jose's class who lives in the neighborhood told Salinas that the teacher's aide had been mean to Jose three times that day. Salinas got Jose to confirm two of the instances, but wanted to be sure.
"I went ahead and put a recorder on his wheelchair to make sure for myself," Salinas said.
She recorded several days of class in mid-March and was "shocked" with what she heard.
"You drooled on the paper," teacher's aide Drew Faircloth could be heard saying impatiently. "That's disgusting."
"Keep your mouth closed and don't drool on my paper," teacher Alicia Brown said on the tape. "I do not want to touch your drool. Do you understand that? Obviously, you don't."
Over the three days of recordings, Salinas said Jose received about 20 minutes of actual instruction and spent almost the entire day sitting in silence with no one speaking to him.
"I could not believe someone would treat a child that way, much less a special needs child," Melisha Salinas told ABCNews.com. "The anger in his voices ... and the thing he was getting angry about, [Jose] just can't help."
"Why is my paper wet?" Brown demanded. "Look at me and answer. That's not an answer. That's not even a word."
"Do you seen anybody else at this table drooling? Then, stop," she said. "You have got drool all over your face and it is gross."
After Salinas listened to the recordings, she took Jose out of school. She said that when Jose is at home, she can't get him to stop talking, but in the tapes he was "dead silent."
"It broke my heart. He had probably been going through that for almost two years," Salinas said of the time Jose has been in the care of the teacher and aide.
"I've heard all 16 hours of [the recording]," Houston County Schools superintendent Tim Pitchford told ABCNews.com. "Very disturbing, as far as not sensitive to the child's special needs, and obviously not compassionate for the child's symptoms of the disability."
Pitchford "immediately put the aide and teacher on administrative leave" after he heard the tapes. The sheriff's office's initial investigation did not find anything criminal and no arrests were made.
Last Friday, the teachers were allowed to return to school but were re-assigned away from Jose. By the next day, angry parents were calling the school, protesting the teachers' return and Pitchford recognized that he made a mistake.
"I made a poor decision and re-assigned them back to school," he said. "It was the wrong decision and I accept full responsibility."
Alabama state law does not allow superintendents to fire teachers on the spot, Pitchford said. He has to make a recommendation to the board, which makes the final decision.
"From day one, it was obvious where this was going to end with the employees," he said. "We knew where this process was going to end, but the process does not allow it to be immediate."
Salinas was shocked to hear the teacher and aide were back at school.
"They were back at the school and my children were there so I got them out of school and so did several angry parents," Salinas said. "I just lost all hope. Nobody was listening to me."
Neither Brown nor Faircloth responded to requests for comment from ABCNews.com.
The normally "shy and reserved" Salinas had hoped to handle the matter quietly with the school, but when the teachers were returned to their positions, she shared the recordings with her local newspaper.
The community has rallied around Jose. A Facebook page called, "We Got Your Back Little Joe!!!" has nearly 5,000 supporters.
"Wow! Sickening to hear any child treated like that," one person wrote.
Another wrote: "I cannot begin to imagine what your family and little Joe are going thru [sic] ... I don't even know you guys and I have cried many times hearing this. My heart breaks and I just would love to hug him over and over."
By Monday, the teachers were back on paid administrative leave, and on April 9 the school board will meet to decide what further action to take.
For now, Jose is back in school and his mother said he has been doing much better.
"He's so much happier when he gets home from school," Salinas said, adding that he hasn't been sick since the teachers were removed. Classmates have noticed the difference, too, telling Salinas that Jose is "smiling all the time, talking all the time, nothing but happy."