By Matt Ward
Two new federal civil rights lawsuits were filed last week in connection to the 2010 child abuse allegations involving special education students at Floyd Elementary School.
Named in the suits are Nye County School District, former Floyd principal Holly Lepisto, special education teacher Sarah Hopkins, and former aides Phyllis DuShane and Kathryn Cummings.
This brings to three the number of civil rights lawsuits pending in Las Vegas federal court brought by parents of some of the students at the heart of the abuse allegations. The first was filed in September.
Added together, plaintiffs in all three cases are seeking more than $33 million in damages.
The latest lawsuits were filed on behalf of two twin brothers and a young girl who were under the care of Hopkins and her aides between August 2009 and November 2010.
The four educators were arrested in November 2010 when the allegations against them surfaced. Since their arrests, only DuShane has pleaded guilty; she agreed to take a deal on a misdemeanor battery charge and serve 150 hours of community service. Felony abuse charges against Cummings and Lepisto were dropped by the district attorney’s office. Hopkins, however, is expected to go to trial next year on a single felony child abuse charge.
Clearly, the group’s legal troubles are far from over, as they are being sued individually and as employees of the school district.
The school district is named in the lawsuits because numerous high-ranking officials allegedly disregarded multiple complaints that Hopkins and her aides were using excessive force against some of her most vulnerable students. Some of these complaints date back as far as 2002, court records show.
A Nov. 21 complaint filed on behalf of twin brothers Logan and Collin Coleman was done through the same Las Vegas attorney, Andre Lagomarsino, who prepared the September complaint. The remaining lawsuit was filed Nov. 20 by David Tanner, a Las Vegas attorney representing Jaydelyn Tillman, another child alleged to have been abused by the teacher and her aides.
The names of the minor students have previously been withheld from the public. These lawsuits, however, have revealed their identities.
The allegations in all three complaints mirror similar ones made public in earlier criminal proceedings, including that Hopkins and her aides routinely “swatted,” “popped,” “flicked,” and used other physical means to either punish or restrain their students, many of whom suffer from severe autism and can’t communicate effectively. Most of the children involved were about 6 years old when the allegations surfaced.
In the case of the twin brothers, the complaint lays out some specific allegations. Among these are that in August 2009, Logan returned home from school with bruises on his upper arms and on his right ear, and that his brother, Collin, suffered from scratches on the inside of his arm during the same time period. Also that month, one allegation states that Logan came off the school bus with blood running down both sides of his nose, with blood on his mouth and shirt as well. In September 2009, Logan is also said to have returned home with bruises on his back, midsection and upper arms as well as scratches to his chin and face.
Hopkins is also alleged to have referred to the child as a “lard ass,” according to the court complaint.
Coincidentally, Hopkins is said to have on more than one occasion taken Logan’s hand, which he would ball into a fist when he would become frustrated, and strike him with it. A similar allegation against Hopkins is made in the September case involving a student named Jonathan McNeal.
Letters to Hopkins from the parents of Collin and Logan regarding the scratches and bruises on their bodies were apparently left unanswered, according to the complaint. NCSD officials also seemed to avoid answering direct questions about treatment of the children in Hopkins’ classroom.
Lagomarsino said he and his clients are prepared for a long court fight.
“I think that the district is going to dig in their heels and we are anticipating a long fight,” he said.
The attorney said numerous children were potentially harmed by the alleged abuse in Hopkins’ classroom, but he doesn’t foresee bringing any additional lawsuits from other plaintiffs.
Tom Beko, an attorney with Erickson, Thorpe & Swainston in Reno, is defending the school district. He is also working closely with the Nevada public agency insurance pool, commonly referred to as POOL PACT, which will be managing the defense of the educators in the court cases. He said the plaintiffs will have a tough time proving their case.
“I think all of them raise the question about the extent to which there was harm caused. That’s what’s going to be difficult about this case. There aren’t any broken bones, there aren’t any open wounds,” he said. “You don’t want to minimize the nature of any wrongful act, but if the person may not really be cognizant of what their environment is it’s very difficult to quantify the harm that has occurred.”
Lagomarsino said that the police report prepared during the criminal investigation reads like a Cliff Notes version of what really happened in Hopkins’ Floyd classroom.
“I can tell you, it will get more detailed in the civil case as it progresses,” he said.
Beko says he hasn’t yet seen all the evidence in the case — a three-inch thick stack of papers representing preliminary hearing testimony in the Hopkins case sits on his desk — but he suspects that since the victims won’t be able to testify themselves any trial will be a battle of experts.
“They will bring in their expert who will say even though this child has a very diminished mental capacity the child still has the ability to feel pain or suffer anxiety or whatever. But without having the child available to describe how I felt and how I reacted to it, I think it becomes a very difficult case for them,” he said. “You’ve got to explain who did what to whom … I just don’t really think they are going to be able to do that.”
The twin brothers and their parents are seeking more than $22 million in damages.
The Tillman complaint seems to reassert allegations made throughout all three civil cases and the local criminal proceedings without spelling out any specific instances involving the little girl. Tillman and her mother, Bethany Carleton, appear to be seeking only $200,000 in damages, not including attorney fees.
A judge is considering a motion to dismiss in the McNeal case. Beko suspects all three cases will be combined at some point.
While the public insurance pool so far is representing all the educators, he says that is subject to change, particularly since one pleaded guilty to a crime and another could be convicted of one.
“The district has tendered the defense of the individually named people to the Nevada public agency insurance pool. It’s up to them as to whether or not they are going to provide the defense. I know that is a question that has not yet been fully answered. The fact that there are criminal allegations that are raised raises issues about whether there is any obligation to provide a defense,” he said. “They are being provided a defense at this point in time. There are several attorneys involved in this case. It’s by no means certain that they will continue to get a defense.”
Attorneys assigned to DuShane, Cummings, Hopkins and Lepisto did not return calls for comment.