According to a release from two East Texas attorneys, from at least August 2019 to October 2021, 10 special needs children suffered abuse and discrimination by teachers and administrators at J.L. Everhart Elementary.
“Many of the children were among the most vulnerable of our society, diagnosed as autistic nonverbal, and the only way we know the abuse occurred is because it was caught on camera,” according to a release.
Families of the children hired attorneys Shane McGuire of the McGuire Firm, PC and Geoff Hoover of Sorey & Hoover, LLP, who helped to secure a $2.5 million settlement. $250,000 of that money will go to each injured child.
Longview ISD officials said that a parent expressed concern which led them to view the classroom video. Continued investigation found “similar aggressive and unprofessional contact” by employees and campus administration.
“In each instance, the employees were immediately removed, and information forwarded to Child Protective Services and law enforcement,” according to an LISD statement. “The District updated the authorities as subsequent information and evidence was discovered. Ultimately, each employee implicated was terminated or elected to resign, and the District reported the conduct to the State Board for Educator Certification.”
Six former LISD employees were indicted for charges related to mistreatment of students: Paula Hawkins Dixon, Cassandra Renee James, Linda Kaye Brown Lister, Priscilla Johnson, Cecilia Gregg and Cynthia Talley.
Dixon is accused of bodily injury to a child younger than 14-years-old “by grabbing and pulling and forcing [children] to and against the wall and ground with the hand of Defendant,” according to her indictment. The grand jury indicted Dixon for allegedly striking a child with a stick, backpack and shaking a child. Dixon is also accused of pushing a child “with the knee of Defendant and by sitting on [a child].”
According to their indictments, Lister and James are accused of “swinging a paddle toward and near the head” of a child, and did not voluntarily deliver them to an emergency infant care provider.
Johnson’s indictment claims that she caused injury to a child “by striking [them] with a shoe.”
Gregg was indicted on four separate counts of injury, with all four counts alleging that she struck students with her hand, according to the indictment.
Talley was indicted for seven counts of causing bodily injury to a child. She has also been indicted for one count of unlawful restraint of a minor.
Gregg, Dixon and Talley were “released from employment” from the district in October 2021 “immediately upon the district’s discovery of their alleged actions,” according to a statement from the district. James and Lister were both working as administrators at the time, and resigned in lieu of termination, the district said.
HOW DID THE DISTRICT RESPOND?
Longview ISD released a series of statements on July 8 after news of the indictments broke, stating that all parents of students in the classroom were made aware of the concern as it was reported and supports were put in place to address all students needs.
In a statement released the day after the board meeting, Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox said, “The actions of these individuals was appalling and inexcusable for any educator charged with the care and custody of children.”
Longview ISD said that they are “horrified” by the conduct of the employees, but they say they are “reassured to know that the timely exchange of information with the authorities led to multiple indictments and further transparency as the case progressed.”
LISD Board President Michael Tubb said it is important to keep the community aware.
“Important to the District is the community’s awareness of steps taken to discern how something of this nature could have occurred and what is being done to ensure that it never happens again,” Tubb said.
According to LISD, an immediate review was initiated by Wilcox to determine whether the staffers assigned to the classroom were appropriately certified and trained. They concluded that the employees “violated their canons of ethics despite their education and training, and that these bad acts likely occurred as a result of the employees being left alone without adequate supervision or oversight by their campus leaders.”
A Director of Special Education placed qualified personnel in the Life Skills classroom, and a “seasoned and proven” administrator was assigned as principal. They retained an educational consultant to ensure that the students could make “sufficient progress” to return for the 2022-2023 school year on target.
They said parents were invited into the classroom they held workshops with teacher, parent and student involvement. They applied an “open-door policy” throughout the semester.
Wilcox required re-training of all teachers and instructional assistants, district-wide by the special education department. The training happened in January before the students returned from the winter holiday and was conducted in-house.
In addition to that, protocols were initiated to establish minimum expectations for classroom monitoring and evaluation by Heads of Schools on all ETAA campuses, with communication of timely compliance to LISD.
ETAA, or East Texas Advanced Academies, is comprised of six in-district charter schools in Longview ISD, including J. L. Everhart Elementary.
“It benefits all involved for the matter to be resolved early, prior to suit being filed, rather than proceed through protracted litigation,” said ETAA Board President Judson Murray. “With the assistance of an agreed-upon mediator, the parties were able to reach this consensus.”
In August, the school board requested that camera be turned on in all LISD self-contained classrooms for all of the 2022-2023 school year.
As for the $2.5 million settlement, that will be funded equally by Longview ISD and ETAA, with the District’s insurance carrier, the Texas Association of School Boards Risk Management Fund, also contributing to the settlement amount.
“The ETAA Board’s decision to support this settlement agreement is wholly unrelated to its employment separation agreement from Dr. Cynthia Wise last year,” said Murray. “The ETAA Board is confident in James Brewer as its new leader and is proud of the academic gains made by students enrolled at the six ETAA campuses.”
“While there was no evidence that [the] Superintendent or any board member had knowledge of the bad acts or failures on the part of campus leadership, the Board believes unequivocally that this settlement expenditure is in the best interests of the District and necessary for all students and their families to heal and proceed forward,” said Tubb.
All 10 students remain with Longview ISD, with nine continuing at J. L. Everhart and one moving on to middle school.
Each student is described by the District’s Director of Special Education as “successful and flourishing.”
News media has been advised that the district will not further comment on this matter, and any inquiries will need to be submitted to the Gregg County District Attorney’s Office.