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Posted: December 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Guilty until proven innocent

Former teacher shares his life-changing experience

Jennifer T. Long/

Clearing the air: Former Alcovy High teacher and coach Derrick Roberts, left, and his wife Mandy said this will be an enjoyable Christmas after child cruelty charges stemming from an accusation in March were dropped by a grand jury last week.

 Every quarterback knows that what looks like a clear path to the end zone can quickly turn into a facemask full of grass. Former Alcovy High School special education teacher and coach Derrick Roberts knows this can happen off of the field too.

 In March, Roberts and one of his five paraprofessionals were accused by another Alcovy employee of taping the mouth of one of his severely disabled students shut as well as placing a bar of soap in the same student’s mouth. On Friday, a grand jury dropped the charges — misdemeanor simple battery and felony child cruelty – against Roberts and the parapro.

 While Roberts, 28, and his wife Mandy are pleased he has been exonerated, they both said they cannot regain the thousands of dollars they used to clear Derrick’s name nor the eight months of sleepless nights their family endured.

 "The only word I can think of to describe it is ‘devastating,’" Mandy said.

 The couple moved to Covington when Derrick was offered the teaching and coaching position at Alcovy. Previously he had taught in Fulton County for two years.

 "My long-term goal was to basically deal with as many different types of kids as I could in as short a time period because I wanted to become a child psych/family therapy type guy — that was my main goal," Derrick said.

 He described the job as "everything he had always wanted." At Alcovy, he was assigned to work with the severe/profound disabled students, who range in age from 16 to 21 years old but have the mental capabilities of a toddler. All were non-verbal.

 "There is nothing cooler than seeing a kid that came in at the beginning of the year and toward the end of the year being able to pick up a spoon and feed himself when he couldn’t at the beginning of the year. I’ll tell you right now, that is awesome," Derrick said. "It seems like very basic stuff, but the main thing I was taught in school and in graduate school is that you need to try to make these children as independent as possible because what that does is that helps them, that helps the family, that helps everyone that takes care of that kid."

 Mandy said it takes a special person and special training to be able to efficiently and compassionately deal with severely disabled students. As a dental hygienist, she admitted she would have no idea how to handle a special ed classroom, but that Derrick was excellent at it.

 "If they were uncomfortable, he knew exactly what to do to make them comfortable," Mandy said. "He knew how to teach them, he knew how to communicate with them and you have to have a gift to be able to do that."

 Derrick was well on his way to earning a Master’s of Special Education in March when deputies came to his classroom in the morning and arrested him and the other accused parapro. He was taken to the county detention center, processed and placed in a cell with another inmate.  

 It was the first time he had ever been arrested.

 "I was raised by a preacher. I spent my whole life looking at the Bible and at what’s right and wrong and then this comes and just blindsides you," Derrick said.

 In shock, he decided to use his phone call to call his father-in-law, who he described as the "rock" of the family. After the initial astonishment, his father-in-law told him not to worry, that everything would be OK and that he would call the rest of the family.

 Mandy was at work that Thursday when she received the call that Derrick had been arrested.

 "We work a half a day on Thursdays and he was arrested on a Thursday and all I can say is, I’m glad I didn’t have to see any patients that afternoon because I probably couldn’t have," Mandy said. "We’ve known each other our whole lives and I know there’s not a mean bone in his body. That’s why I couldn’t believe somebody that knew him would say that he could do something like that and try to hurt somebody else."

 Derrick and Mandy said they later learned that the investigation into the allegations began the day after he was arrested and that proper procedures were not followed in reporting the incident. Apparently, according to the Roberts, several links in the chain of command were skipped over by the accusing employee.

 "We don’t want to point any fingers, but the main problem here is that the procedures that are in the school system that are in place to stop something like this did not get followed," Derrick said. "That’s the thing that’s crazy to us is that anyone can accuse you of anything and the person who is the accuser doesn’t have to pay for it."

 Meanwhile, Derrick resigned from the job he cherished and Mandy missed several days of work to attend court dates with him. Because Derrick has always worked two jobs, he was never without a paycheck. However, he was out of the classroom and off the field he loved.

 We try to remain positive people," Mandy said. "We believe that everything in our life happens for a reason and so even though sometimes you don’t know what that reason is, you believe that God is leading you somewhere."

 Outside of negative newspaper and television coverage, Derrick and Mandi said colleagues, parents, students and friends rallied around them in support. They said without encouragement and faith from the community, they probably would have moved away from Covington.

 "Everybody that knows me and understands me, knows that I’m all about taking care of kids," Derrick said.

 The Roberts said they are planning to enjoy Christmas this year. Derrick has no immediate plan to return to education, although he did finish his masters in May.

 He said the hardest part of the entire ordeal was knowing how much Mandy and his family were worrying about him. He said the experience taught him how strong his marriage is. Both Derrick and Mandy said they now realize how quickly life can change.

 "I love football so much because life and football are so much alike in that from one play to another or one day to another you don’t know what’s going to happen—you don’t know if you’re going to make that tackle, you don’t know if you’re going to catch that ball, but if you work hard things are going to go your way and eventually you’re going to win that game or you’re going to be a successful person," Derrick said. "That’s what I taught my kids and what I still talk to my players about. You just work as hard as you possibly can and see where that yard line is and that’s it."

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