A civil suit was recently filed against the Highland School District alleging various forms of abuse toward a special needs student who was on the district’s campus in January of 2020.
The suit, filed on behalf of the minor by parent Shelly Miller through the family’s attorneys Barrett S. Moore and Alexandra C. Benton, of Blair and Stroud, lists the Highland School District, Kelly Geoffrion, Gina Abney, Payne Abney, Tammy Reese and “Jane Doe” as defendants.
“This case arises out of the gross abuse of an eleven-year-old child with disabilities by public school employees into whose care he was entrusted. It is a case involving physical, verbal and mental abuse…,” the suit states. “By their acts and omissions, Defendants have violated the constitutional, statutory and common law rights of the child and it is to vindicate those rights that plaintiff now comes before this court and seeks relief.”
The suit states on or about Jan. 9, 2020, the student was a special education student at Highland attending class in person and each individual named in the suit was present for the events which led to the filing of the suit.
The student was sitting at his desk when he was approached by another leading to a disagreement and an allegation Jacob had struck his classmate.
The other student told the teachers what had happened. As teachers approached Jacob he began to apologize repeatedly and began retreating backward away from the teachers.
“Defendant Gina Abney, a special education paraprofessional, directed defendant Payne Abney to ‘go get them,’ referring to pom pom craft balls for arts and crafts projects,” the suit states.
Gina then allegedly placed a craft ball on the back of Jacob’s shirt near his shoulder blade where he couldn’t reach it to remove it.
Jacob began crying and attempted to distance himself from the craft ball. The incident took place in the classroom while Jacob was surrounded by his peers.
He was then directed to enter the handicap accessible restroom to wash his hands and face. As he approached, “teachers verbally berated Jacob.”
While in the restroom, Jacob was directed to wash his hands, however, the suit states only hot water was turned on for him to use to fulfill the task.
“Kelly Geoffrion told Jacob to wash his face and hands and to clean up his snotty nose or the craft ball would ‘climb up his neck and eat his head off’,” the suit states.
While still in the restroom, the lights were turned off by one of the teachers at the instruction of another and the door was shut. “Gina Abney stated, ‘I wonder if he is scared of the dark.’ ”
Listed as evidence in the suit is a copy of a section of a behavioral log which was kept and presented to Jacob’s parent regarding the incident.
“Jacob had a rough day today. He went to the bathroom and got some tissue to blow his nose and came out and chased boys around with the snotty tissues trying to wipe it on the kids. He was also caught pushing kids in our room and then lied about it,” the note states.
Over the course of the next several days, the suit alleges that Jacob began to act out and did not want to attend school, trying to hide when he would see the bus approaching.
On Jan. 28, 2020 Tonya Miller, Highland’s special education director contacted Shelly and requested she and her finance come to the administration building for a meeting.
Multiple employees of the district were present for the meeting during which Shelly was informed Jacob and another male student had gotten into an altercation a couple of days prior and although the altercation was only verbal, one teacher would be moved to a different position in the district and would no longer be in the special needs classroom.
A few days later, Feb. 3, 2020, Jacob returned to school and after returning home for the day, told Shelly three of the teachers, Tammy Reese, Kelly Geoffrion and Payne Abney were not there, but Gina Abney was.
Just over a week later, Shelly received a call stating the three teachers (not present Feb. 3) had been terminated.
An offer was then extended for Jacob to continue his education in an isolated environment. Approximately one week later, Shelly was informed it would no longer be possible for Jacob to continue his education in that manner.
The suit goes on to list injuries and losses suffered by Jacob as a result of the alleged incident and requests “compensatory damages in the amount to be ascertained according to proof; for punitive damages in the amount sufficient to punish defendants and deter others from like conduct; for nominal damages; for attorney’s fees and costs and such other and further relief as this court deems just and proper,” the suit states.
When asked for comment, Superintendent Don Sharp said he was not able to comment per the instructions from the school’s attorney, however; he did offer direct contact to the school’s attorneys, Bequettte, Billingsley and Kees Law Firm in Little Rock. Sharp went one step further and also made contact with the law firm expressing the desire for comment from Hallmark Times.
A comment sent to Sharp by text message to be provided to Hallmark Times was given regarding the lawsuit. “It is a legal matter. We cannot comment. The student is being observed by the district. We treat all students with the highest respect. No matter what the student’s abilities or disabilities are we try to serve them as they need to be served,” Cody Kees with Bequette, Billingsley and Kees Law Firm in Little Rock stated.