By Kelsey Givens
A preliminary hearing for two Floyd Elementary educators charged with abusing handicapped students in 2010 will resume today in Pahrump Justice Court.
Nine witnesses, an assortment of Nye County School District employees, Floyd co-workers and family members of victims, testified two weeks ago when the preliminary hearing for former Floyd Principal Holly Lepisto and special education teacher Sarah Hopkins began.
The woman are facing felony child abuse and neglect charges.
The charges stem from several incidents that occurred between 2009 and 2010, involving Hopkins and several of her students.
According to witness testimony on Feb. 24, Hopkins was seen spanking, pushing, flicking and shaking some students as punishment for acting out. Many of Hopkins’ students were only about 6 years old at the time and suffered from a variety of ailments, including autism.
Lepisto was charged when she allegedly ignored complaints that Hopkins was violent with students. Lepisto was accused of not cooperating fully with police in the matter and later arrested at the school.
One of the first witnesses brought before the judge during the Feb. 24 hearing was Tammy Schoeck, a former teaching aide who worked briefly in Hopkins’ classroom.
It was she who helped start the investigation into the alleged abuse by filing an incident report with the Nye County Sheriff’s Office in October 2010 after witnessing several incidents between Hopkins and two of her students.
Schoeck told the court that one of the alleged incidents she witnessed stemmed from a little boy refusing to write when the children were practicing spelling.
She said Hopkins went over to him and shook him and yelled at him as he cried, before sitting him out in the hallway where his crying wouldn’t be distracting to the other students.
“She just shook him to where his head was bouncing,” she said.
Schoeck explained to the court that another student in the class was flicked in the mouth for licking the tables, blowing raspberries or sticking her tongue out.
The same little girl was also seen by this witness and several others being spanked by Hopkins or one of the other aides for acting out — Phyllis DuShane, 72, was a former aide in Hopkins’s classroom who pleaded guilty in December 2010 to “swatting” and “popping” students. Charges were later dropped against a second aide arrested in the matter.
Another witness, Floyd employee Darlene Gutierrez, corroborated the spanking explaining to the court she witnessed one of the aides spanking the little girl in one of the hallways of the school.
“She was blind, if she couldn’t stay up with the class she would be swatted,” she said.
One incident was so upsetting for the school’s library aide it brought her to tears.
Nancy Cratty said she saw Hopkins harshly push down a girl when she tried to get up and walk away from the class while Cratty was reading them a story.
She admitted the child needed to be restrained for her own safety, but said the way Hopkins pulled her down was harsh.
In another incident, Cratty said she witnessed a little boy tugged on because he wasn’t getting up fast enough.
“One boy, for instance, moved very slow,” she said. “I saw her grab him and tug to get him up faster than he could move himself.”
Sam Simatos, the Nye County School District Director of Special Education Support Services, said corporal punishment is not permitted under the Nevada Revised Statute or under district policy.
“We don’t do it,” he said. “Corporal punishment is not allowed in this state.”
In the district’s official policy on the subject, it explicitly states, “The use of corporal punishment on any student by a staff member in the Nye County School District is expressly prohibited by the board of trustees and Nevada Revised Statue 392.4633.”
Any type of restraint of a student is against the rules, and if it does happen it’s supposed to be reported, Simatos explained.
Unless certain types of physical touch are approved by parents in the Individual Education Plan used with special needs students, teachers are not allowed to physically force students to do something.
Simatos said he was not familiar with any reports of restraint coming from Hopkins during the 2009-2010 school year.
However, he said during a conversation with Lepisto, she “indicated she had complaints,” but hadn’t done much about them.
“I said you need to investigate,” Simatos told the court.
Tammy McNeal, the mother of one of the allegedly abused children, said she had never been counseled on or approved the use of physical force on her child.
Bethany Tillman, the mother of one of the other children involved in the case, said the only reports she received during that year with Hopkins were that the child was being disruptive and the problem had to be fixed.
She said Hopkins never counseled her on ways to solve the problem, “just to fix it.”
During some of the testimony given by witnesses, Hopkins’ defense attorney, Las Vegas lawyer Thomas Pitaro, tried to show that Hopkins only used physical restraint because there was no other way to get the children to do what they were supposed to do.
“She was trying to get these kids in a difficult position to behave,” he said. “We’ve shown through this witness that in fact these things were done for a purpose.”
The hearing continues this morning at 9 a.m. in the Pahrump Justice Court. A judge is likely to remand the case to District Court where Lepisto and Hopkins could be arraigned in the coming weeks. Both women are each out of police custody on a $100,000 bond.