Two JCPS parents have sued the Jefferson County Board of Education, asserting that their child was in an abusive learning environment in an early childhood program at Stopher Elementary School.
The suit isn’t tied to the district’s criticized Head Start program — Stopher doesn’t have a Head Start program, a JCPS spokeswoman told Insider. However, the suit raises questions about how young children are treated in other district early childhood programs.
Charles and Savanna Hall are suing JCPS Director of Early Childhood Education Rina Gratz, former Stopher Elementary School teacher Lauren Hallinan and the JCBE asserting that their child drastically changed behavior while attending the tuition-based program at Stopher.
The complaint, filed in district court on Tuesday, asks JCPS to refund the Halls $5,000 in tuition they paid for the program, saying the district didn’t provide a safe learning environment.
The suit, released to reporters Monday, accuses Hallinan of “horrible abuse” toward students and co-workers at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.
According to the court documents, an internal JCPS investigation found instances of verbal abuse directed at students and co-workers, with one assistant resigning due to Hallinan’s “negative attitude.”
Hallinan had been with the district for over 24 years, according to documents included with the complaint, and resigned in April.
The Halls said they noticed a change in their child’s behavior before they knew of the abuse, the complaint says. She became “aggressive” toward her peers and older sister, “slept for up to four hours” after school and began wetting the bed after being in Hallinan’s classroom, according to the complaint.
Normally a friendly, loving kid who enjoyed going to school, Savanna Hall said, her daughter was anxious and didn’t want to go anymore.
“It’s extremely upsetting,” Savanna Hall said. “You send your kids to school to learn and find out they’re just being abused, verbally or otherwise.”
A JCPS spokeswoman said the district hadn’t reviewed the suit and had no comment.
The Halls told reporters that they don’t have proof their daughter was specifically abused, but simply being in the classroom and experiencing it happen to others caused mental and emotional changes.
“What we do know is that she was affected,” Charles said. “Whether she was standing right next to a kid being verbally yelled at or whether she was one of them, first party or third party, it’s all the same.”
They said their daughter’s pediatrician didn’t notice anything unusual at her regular appointment during the time frame, nor did the doctor recommend they see a child psychologist.
The Halls said the alleged abuse from Hallinan went on for four to five months before she was removed. Stopher Elementary principal Brigitte Owens requested an internal investigation in December 2017 to look into allegations of Hallinan using “demeaning, belittling and unkind words” and yelling at students, according to the investigation report.
Instructional assistants in Hallinan’s classroom alleged that Hallinan would criticize students’ lunches, religions and races, according to the investigation. Hallinan allegedly also made belittling remarks to students, including telling students that her “dog understands better than you,” according to one assistant. Hallinan denied the accusations, according to the investigation, and the claims were ultimately found to be unsubstantiated.
Parents were kept in the dark for a lot of the process, the Halls said. A group of parents met with the principal and weren’t provided with any specifics about the situation, they said.
“I was pissed,” Charles said of his reaction when he learned about the investigation into Hallinan. “We paid like $6,000 for our kid to go to public school … I was like, ‘Why weren’t we notified of all this stuff?’ I said, ‘You need to refund our money because you didn’t provide a safe environment. Why was this going on?’ And they had no answers for us.”
Once Hallinan was removed from the room, the classroom saw around 11 substitutes in one year, the parents said. Despite the turnover, their daughter’s behavior began to shift back to normal once Hallinan left, the Halls said.
The child’s name is not in the complaint because she is a minor. Now 5 years old, the child is “doing great now,” her parents said. She is set to stay in JCPS for kindergarten in the fall, but her parents said it was a difficult choice after their experience.
The initial complaint said the allegations happened in a Head Start classroom, and was updated when Insider mentioned there was no Head Start program at that school.
Allegations stemming from the tuition-based program raise questions about how prevalent early childhood abuse is in the district. Since October 2016, around 40 abuse and neglect allegations have been reported in the district’s Head Start programs, leading to several staff firings and resignations.
JCPS had been working with the federal Head Start office to prevent abuse and change the program’s culture since October 2017, but a May follow-up report said the district continued to fail to prevent the abuse and neglect of students in the program.
Days before the report, JCBE voted to give up the $15 million Head Start grant, opting to pay $8 million from its general fund to move students into its own early childhood education program.