By Matt Ward
A multi-million dollar federal civil rights lawsuit was filed late last month in federal district court in Las Vegas by the parents of a special needs boy who was allegedly abused at Floyd Elementary School by his special education teacher and two of her aides between 2007 and 2010.
The Nye County School District is named in the lawsuit along with ex-Floyd principal Holly Lepisto, special education teacher Sarah Hopkins, as well as former aides Phyllis DuShane and Kathryn Cummings, who are all also being sued individually.
Lawyers for the student, Jonathan McNeal, and his parents, Kevin and Tammie McNeal, filed the lawsuit on Sept. 28. They are seeking more than $11 million in damages. The lawsuit notes that other students and parents may join the suit at a later date.
A lawyer for the school district said Tuesday that he is aware of the litigation and that the school district’s insurance provider will be representing the district in court. That insurance provider is Pool Pact, the state’s rural insurance carrier for government entities, such as counties and towns.
Paul J. Anderson, the district’s lawyer, said Pool Pact attorneys will ultimately decide whether the district will defend the educators in court or if they will be on their own to defend themselves.
He said he has read the complaint and didn’t find it particularly alarming.
“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt. Anybody can allege anything in a complaint. Just because they put a big number in there doesn’t necessarily, you know, that’s the plaintiff’s attorney, that’s his assessment, which obviously is a bit biased,” the Reno-based attorney said.
Attempts to contact McNeal’s attorney, Andre M. Lagomarsino of Las Vegas, was not successful by press time Tuesday.
A police investigation into abuse allegations in Hopkins’ special education class at Floyd culminated with the arrest of the four educators in November 2010.
Hopkins, DuShane and Cummings were accused of inappropriate physical contact with students while Lepisto was accused of covering up the allegations when confronted by police and district officials. The Nye County District Attorney’s Office filed charges on all four women and at one point each faced a single count of felony child abuse.
Eventually DuShane made a plea deal and the cases against Cummings and Lepisto were dropped altogether. Prosecutors so far are still planning to try Hopkins sometime next year.
DuShane pleaded to a misdemeanor battery charge, admitting to swatting one student’s behind and popping another in the mouth. She was sentenced to 150 hours of community service. Her plea deal may prevent the school district from being able to defend her in federal court.
The complaint filed by Lagomarsino paints an ugly picture of the behavior Hopkins and her aides engaged in and accuses some school district officials of being complicit in the abuse as well as being negligent in refusing to follow up on complaints other Floyd educators lodged against Hopkins.
Not much is known about the victims in the case against Hopkins, their names and medical conditions have generally not been made public.
According to the lawsuit, Jonathan McNeal is a non-verbal student who is unable to communicate with his teachers.
He was a student in Hopkins’ classroom for three years between 2007 and 2010. The suit claims Hopkins, Cummings and DuShane each physically abused the student.
The suit claims that before the spring of 2010, four separate complaints were made to Lepisto regarding Hopkins and her aides — one from a librarian, one from a computer aide, another from a substitute teacher and finally a complaint from Sam Simatos, the district’s special education support services director, who the suit alleges also received complaints from other individuals in the district but did little to follow them up.
The complaint states that the abuse mostly occurred during the 2009-2010 school year and that it happened in the classroom and in common areas, including the school library. The complaint features some strong language in its description of various single instances of abuse.
For example, it describes a particular episode where Hopkins allegedly squeezed a young female student so tight the young girl screamed.
Another description recalls Hopkins and her aides pushing, shoving and yanking students in and out of their chairs as well as being verbally abusive; “he’s stupid” or “he can’t do it anyway,” are cited as common utterances heard coming from Hopkins about her students.
The 27-page complaint lists more such instances before spelling out what federal civil statutes the educators supposedly violated, which mostly include violations of the students’ Fourth Amendment rights.
The complaint also alleges the school district and educators were negligent. It also states that the educators intentionally engaged in battery, infliction of emotional distress and that the district is liable due to administrative and supervisory failures at the highest level.
Finally, the suit seeks $6,075,000 in compensatory damages and $5,000,000 in punitive damages. These figures do not include interest and attorney fees also being sought by the plaintiffs.