Paraprofessional force-fed jelly, tissues into mouths of toddlers, Highlands Co. deputies say

Highlands County

AVON PARK, Fla. (WFLA) – A paraprofessional called it “giving the jelly,” according to her arrest affidavit, and now she’s facing felony child abuse charges in Highlands County.

“There’s ways you discipline kids in school and that’s not one of them,” said Scott Dressel, the public information officer for Highlands County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputies say on April 21, Cynthia Heiss force-fed jelly into the mouth of one student and tissues into another and held their mouths shut after they misbehaved in her classroom.

The children were 3 and 4 years old and enrolled in the Pre-K special needs program at Park Elementary, according to the sheriff’s office.

A fellow teacher reported the incident to law enforcement.

She told detectives she has heard Heiss say “if you don’t stop, I’m going to give you the jelly” to students before.

That day, Heiss appeared “very agitated” and “emotionally drained.”

“She observed Heiss open the jelly container, grab (the victim’s) face while he was lying down on his naptime mat, forced his mouth open, and emptied the contents of the jelly container into (his) mouth. She then shut (his) mouth and kept it shut until (the victim) swallowed the contents,” the teacher told detectives.

“Did you know if you shove three to four tissues into his mouth it will go dry?” the teacher reported Heiss saying to her.

That’s when she shoved the tissues into another child’s mouth for “what felt like forever,” but was probably five seconds, the teacher told detectives.

Heiss also told the teacher she brought a paddle with her of which “Granny” would approve, according to the affidavit.

Heiss denied the allegations to detectives.

She did not respond to 8 On Your Side’s request for comment.

“I can understand that kids can be unruly but there’s procedures in place to handle discipline in the school and none of them involve stuffing anything in a kid’s mouth,” said Dressel.

Heiss is on unpaid administrative leave pending termination, according to deputy superintendent Andrew Lethbridge.

She was first hired in September 2019 as a substitute teacher and became a paraprofessional in January 2020.

The school board of Highlands County declined to comment further.

“Oh I would be livid… I would be livid,” said Angela Sanchez of Sebring.

Sanchez’s son, Levi, 5, is a Highlands County student with autism.

“These children don’t have a voice. Sometimes some of them can’t speak. Some of them can’t move,” said Sanchez.

For the past year, she has argued for cameras in special needs classrooms to prevent abuse and settle allegations. Cases like this, to her, are proof of the importance of surveillance.

“I’ve asked numerous times about it. They stated it was an invasion of privacy type deal. I don’t think we’re worried about the privacy. We’re worried about the safety of our children,” she said.

In early April, a Sebring High School paraprofessional was arrested following accusations she physically abused a nonverbal autistic student while the pair were walking on campus.

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