Education

Rocklin schools hit with student abuse claims

Two families have filed claims against the Rocklin Unified School District alleging that their special-needs children were subjected to physical and psychological abuse at the hands of a teacher at Breen Elementary School during the last school year.

The claims allege that the school principal failed to act or to notify parents despite reports of abuse.

The Rocklin Police Department in late April began investigating whether there was willful cruelty to students after receiving a tip from an anonymous caller. With school district cooperation, investigators interviewed several teacher’s aides and contacted parents. Investigators also listened to some of the students with the help of a child forensic interviewer, according to the police report.

In June, the department turned its file over to the Placer County District Attorney’s Office for evaluation and possible prosecution, Captain Lon Milka said. Rocklin police recommended a misdemeanor charge, though the investigation remains open, he said.

Parents said they learned of the problems in May, more than six months after the start of some of alleged abuses. The special education teacher, Sherry McDaniel, was placed on administrative leave in May, a day after one of the parents received a call from the Police Department about the investigation, the parents said.

McDaniel, who has not been arrested or charged with any crime, could not be reached for comment.

“As a parent, you can’t even describe the horror and the shock of being contacted by the Police Department telling you your child was being abused by his teacher,” Jennifer Hugunin, mother of an 8-year-old autistic child, said at a news conference Thursday.

The district, in its emailed statement, said it is committed to the safety of all students but has a legal obligation to protect the privacy of involved parties and could not comment on specifics of the case.

“The district is fully cooperating with the investigation by law enforcement,” the statement said. “The teacher was placed on administrative leave last spring when the district was made aware of these allegations. The district will take appropriate disciplinary actions as necessary.”

All four parents asked that their children’s names not be published. They are represented by attorney Peter W. Alfert of Walnut Creek and co-counsel Todd Boley of Alameda. Alfert said the families plan to file lawsuits in state and federal court.

The claim filed Thursday by Jennifer and Patrick Hugunin said their son, who has multiple disabilities, was picked up by McDaniel in March. The teacher allegedly folded the boy’s knees to his chest and “aggressively threw him out of the classroom” and locked him out. He banged on the door and screamed to be let back in.

On another occasion, the claim said, McDaniel “pulled him down the stairs” and allowed him to fall down the stairwell.

The other claim, filed by Nicole Hill and Keith Caldwell, said McDaniel on 10 to 15 occasions in September 2013 put their 10-year-old “nonverbal” son on the floor when he made noises and “lay on top of him” and yelled “shut up” and “be quiet” with her body weight on him.

When he was bouncing on a large exercise ball, the claim said, McDaniel reportedly kicked the ball out from under him and caused him to fall on his back and buttocks. When the boy stood up, he swung his arms at the teacher. She grabbed him, swept his legs out from under him and pinned him face down on the ground with her full body weight on top of him.

In November, the claim said, McDaniel “dragged” the boy into a “sensory room,” shut the door and antagonized him by yelling at him for about two hours while a teacher’s aide held the door shut.

In another instance, the boy had wiggled part of his body through an opening in the back of a plastic chair and asked for help in extricating himself. McDaniel would not allow a teacher’s aide to help, the claim said. Instead, she pulled him through the opening, causing physical injuries and bruising, the claim said.

The parents, who are black, also said in the claim that witnesses have reported saying in front of their child that teaching him “is like training with a monkey.”

Caldwell was appointed by the school board to represent the interests of parents who have special-needs children. He was emotional and mortified when he explained Thursday that he did not know what was happening to his own son at the school. He said both he and Hill realized the boy was, for some unclear reason, acting out through aggression and bed-wetting.

“The whole time I am meeting with the district on a monthly basis, no one said a word to me,” Caldwell said. “I feel like I failed my son because my job was to protect him, and I didn’t.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

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