By MATT WARD
Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi filed formal criminal charges against four Floyd Elementary School educators on Thursday.
Principal Holly Lepisto, special education teacher Sarah Hopkins, special education aides Phyllis Dushane and Kathryn Cummings each face one count of child abuse or neglect, a Class B felony. The four women were originally arrested on five counts of child abuse and one count each of conspiracy to commit a crime.
In a statement released by the district attorney, a criminal complaint against the women alleges that over the course of a year DuShane, Cummings and Hopkins “used physical forms of discipline” that included “grabbing a student’s arm and forcing him to punch himself in the face, repeatedly flicking a student behind the ear, swatting a student and striking or popping a student in the mouth.” Lepisto, meanwhile, allegedly received numerous complaints about the instructors and failed to intervene to protect the students.
Kunzi said that his decision to combine the five charges of child abuse for which the women were originally arrested into one charge did not constitute any change in the severity of the case.
“I combined them all into one as a charging style. There were multiple victims,” he said. “In my estimation, when you look at the abuse, there wasn’t one particular time, but it was the entire course of conduct.”
A court hearing where the women will have an opportunity to answer the charges will take place in the near future, Kunzi said. A preliminary court hearing will likely be set then.
Ed Lepisto, the principal’s husband, said in an interview with the PVT earlier this week that he and his wife have received an outpouring of support from friends and family. He said the pace of events has left him and his wife feeling “victimized.”
“The system really rocks your world. The handcuffs, losing your freedom for something you didn’t do. It’s really unsettling,” he said. “We’ll continue to hold strong to our faith and our beliefs.
“We still don’t quite understand what’s being said. They can do that and leave you in limbo.”
A set of court records obtained by the PVT on Wednesday painted a fuller picture of the allegations against the four Floyd Elementary educators.
Nye County Sheriff’s deputies were made aware of alleged abuse at Floyd Elementary School on Oct. 22 after a whistleblower reported witnessing a teacher strike two disabled students, according to a search warrant affidavit written by NCSO Det. David Boruchowitz.
The whistleblower told an NCSO deputy that a “Mrs. Hopkins” flicked two children in the face, “grabbed,” “hit,” and “shook violently” the disabled students for not following instructions, according to the affidavit, which was filed in Fifth Judicial District Court on Nov. 22.
According to the warrant, the whistleblower is no longer employed with the school district, having left to get “out of this situation,” the affidavit states.
Two other search warrant affidavits as well as a declaration of arrest filed in the case were also reviewed. They reiterated many of the same allegations against the four Floyd Elementary employees, who were arrested on Nov. 23.
The educators are all suspended, along with a fifth aide, from their jobs at the school district pending an internal investigation. Lepisto and Hopkins are free on $100,000 bail. DuShane was released from jail for medical reasons shortly after her arrest, and Cummings was released on her own recognizance after spending almost a week in the Pahrump jail.
Nye County Sheriff’s deputies executed a number of search warrants at Floyd Elementary as well as with the school district. Police seized all kinds of employment, disciplinary and school district policy records. Documents pertaining to at least two alleged victims were also seized, including IEPs, discipline history, therapy protocols and related school documents.
The PVT is not releasing the names of the alleged victims. Parents of the victims will be identified only if they agree to comment for future stories about the arrests. The PVT is also withholding the whistleblower’s identity.
According to a search warrant affidavit filed in Justice Court on Nov. 29 and signed by Justice of the Peace Tina Brisebill, NCSO detectives seized the personnel records for DuShane, Cummings, Lepisto and Hopkins as well as for previously unnamed school district employees Tracy Visconti and Amy Johnson.
In the affidavit attached to the warrant, the detective writes that through his investigation he identified four victims of abuse who are students in Hopkins’ Floyd Elementary class. The children, he writes, were subjected to “spankings, flicking, pushing, slapping, violent shaking and grabbing.” The students suffered from a variety of physical disabilities and mental challenges. The detective describes interviews he conducted in the case, including an interview with an unnamed aide who says that on one occasion they “witnessed Hopkins grab (name withheld)’s hand and make him punch himself in the mouth several times as a punishment.”
According to the sworn statement, three aides went to Lepisto and filed complaints about the incident. One aide told police that Lepisto said “this was a special class and this is how things were handled there.” In the statement, Boruchowitz also describes his interviews with DuShane, Cummings and Hopkins. He says their information was “deceptive and contradictory.” Also, he says the women “admitted to the allegations in a round-about fashion.”
According to the affidavit, Hopkins told Lepisto of “spanking” the children, and that the principal urged the teacher to be careful of perceptions. An interview of one of the victim’s parents, according to the sworn statement, revealed that the parent did not give Hopkins or anyone at the school district permission to punish the student.
According to the detective’s sworn statement, he interviewed a 6-year-old who is in Hopkins’s class. The child told the detective that while other students participate in a disciplinary routine involving cards when they misbehave, another student is “spanked” or “snapped” when they misbehave.
Boruchowitz also interviewed “a director of Special Education” at the school who revealed that he’d referred an occupational therapist to Lepisto when the therapist complained about the treatment of students in Hopkins’ class, according to the statement. Contacted later, Boruchowitz writes that the therapist reported incidents multiple times to the school district that went unheeded.
Hopkins said that she was following accepted practices, according to the detective’s description of his interview with her. The detective reveals in the affidavit that a “letter of expectation” exists that Hopkins made available to all her new classroom aides. In the letter, according to the sworn statement, Hopkins advises that if the aides have any problems with the level of physical contact between them and the students, they should “report it to her.” Boruchowitz says in his statement that he believes this was done to keep “the circle of people that knew as small as possible.”
The affidavit also records that Floyd Elementary guidance counselor Kathy Gailey was provided a copy of this letter.
A third search warrant filed in Brisebill’s court on Nov. 29 seeks records provided to Gailey as well as all video surveillance taken from the interior and exterior of the school.
A declaration of arrest provided to the PVT on Wednesday and another on Thursday reveals the same information as the warrant affidavits.
Kunzi made clear in his statement Thursday that the charges against the educators are “allegations,” and that “anyone charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
In a reference to the sometimes hostile relationship between the NCSO and former district attorney Bob Beckett — who is representing at least one and maybe two of the educators in this case — Kunzi emphasized the close relationship he hopes to forge with Nye County deputies.
“This has not been an easy investigation and I understand the public does not want to believe these things could happen in our community. Even though I have been delayed in completing these complaints because of other demands on my time, we could not have moved as quickly as we have without the close working relationship between the DA’s office and the Sheriff’s office.”