Families sue Rocklin district over alleged abuse by special education teacher

Attorneys for six families have filed a federal lawsuit against the Rocklin Unified School District and seven current and former district employees regarding the alleged abuse of students by a special education teacher.

The civil suit comes two weeks after the Placer County District Attorney’s Office filed 14 misdemeanor counts against teacher Sherry Ann McDaniel. The criminal and civil cases stem from alleged actions by McDaniel that include taping a child’s hands to the desk, forcefully picking up and locking a child out of the classroom, and pushing her body into that of a student.

In addition to McDaniel and the Rocklin Unified School District, the civil suit filed Thursday in federal court in Sacramento names as defendants Charles Thibideau, principal of Breen Elementary School; Janna Cambra, director of special education during the 2013-14 school year; Betty Jo Wessinger, director of special education from 2012 to 2013; current district Superintendent Roger Stock; former district Superintendent Kevin Brown; and Todd Cutler, a deputy superintendent during the periods in which the alleged abuse occurred.

The federal lawsuit maintains that classroom aides reported the alleged abuse to administrators, but the principal and district supervisors took no action to protect the children and did not notify parents or law enforcement authorities.

The parents first learned of the alleged abuse of their children when they were contacted by police. The Rocklin Police Department in late April 2014 began investigating whether there was willful cruelty after receiving a tip from an anonymous caller. The complaint filed by the District Attorney’s Office on April 14 charged McDaniel with 10 misdemeanor counts of cruelty to a child by abuse, neglect or endangering health, and four misdemeanor counts of simple battery.

The school district issued a prepared statement Thursday saying that although it had been informed that a federal lawsuit was being filed “based upon alleged misdemeanor abuse of students by a teacher who has been on unpaid administrative leave,” the district had not yet had the opportunity to review the complaint and could not comment on its specifics.

“The district’s first priority is, and always has been, the safety of our students,” the statement said. “We will continue to fully cooperate with the authorities and our families to resolve these issues and move forward with providing our students an excellent education.”

The civil suit asserts that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, discriminated against the plaintiffs in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, committed battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, committed negligence and negligent supervision, and violated their mandatory duty. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.

“This case is but the latest example in a national trend of outrageous abuse against vulnerable special education and disabled students that is on the rise across the country,” Peter Alfert, an attorney for the families, said in a written statement.

The school district previously reported that McDaniel was placed on administrative leave May 5, 2014, the day after police notified the district of the alleged misconduct, and initiated disciplinary proceedings against her, placing her on unpaid leave Nov. 20. District officials said a dismissal hearing is scheduled for the end of May before the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

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