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Lawsuits allege repeated child abuse at Mercer school

Three separate complaints filed in Mercer County this week allege a culture of bullying, neglect and abuse of power in a classroom at Cumberland Heights Early Learning Center, in Bluefield, according to court filings at Mercer County Circuit Court.

Alma Belcher, a teacher at the school, is accused of repeatedly physically abusing several children, including at least one special needs child, in her classroom, while the school’s principal, Steve Hayes, and the county superintendent, Deborah Akers, are accused of failing to address the issue the several times it was brought to their attention.

Two of the suits were filed on behalf of minors, identified as B.H., a 3-year-old special needs student, and A.G., a 5-year-old student. The third suit was filed by Amanda Shrewsbury, a teachers aide at Cumberland Heights who worked in Belcher’s classroom where she allegedly witnessed her abuse and neglect several students, including B.H. and A.G.

B.H., who is non-verbal, allegedly had his hands glued together as punishment, his mouth and nose covered to stop him from crying (nearly suffocating him), his hair pulled, his arms grabbed and he was repeatedly put in a restraint chair, sometimes in a separate room alone with the lights off for long periods of time.

B.H.’s parents were notified of the abuse for the first time midway through the 2018-19 school year, after Shrewsbury reported Belcher’s behavior, since B.H. was unable to communicate to them what was happening.

Alleged abuse against A.G. reached such a point that the child became noticeably withdrawn and often cried before attending school in the mornings. Per the suit, Belcher pushed A.G., pulled her hair out of the scalp, shook her, screamed at her and failed to intervene when other students in the class bullied her, instead forcing the 5-year-old to sit with them at lunch and refusing to allow her to call home.

When A.G.’s parents found out about the other student bullying her — one allegedly threatened to “cut” her and assaulted her in the bathroom — her father notified school personnel, but nothing was done to help A.G. or to put an end to the bullying. In a meeting with Belcher in January to address the other student’s bullying, A.G.’s father noticed his daughter was timid and scared, hiding behind him during the entirety of the meeting.

He believed A.G. was afraid to tell Belcher when she was being bullied, but as the days wore on, A.G. began coming home from school with unexplained red marks on her body and once a knot on her head, according to the suit. Her parents became concerned it was not just another student hurting her at school.

A.G.’s mother — referred to in the suit only as S.G. — is an administrator at Mercer County Schools, and due to this “awkward position” agreed with her daughter not to report Belcher for grabbing A.G. and screaming in her face, as she believed it was an isolated incident.

When the student bullying A.G. threatened “to shoot her,” A.G.’s father contacted Hayes, whose only response was that A.G. “simply needed to know who to stay away from,” the suit reads.

While unbeknownst to A.G.’s parents, Shrewsbury had been filing complaints against Belcher for her classroom conduct for several months, which administrators — including Hayes — never responded to.

Shrewsbury claims in her suit that from November 2018 to January 2019, she made 57 complaints alleging Belcher was abusing and neglecting a targeted group of children in her classroom. Instead of investigating the complaints, employees at the Mercer County Board of Education — which is also listed as a defendant in all three complaints — retaliated against Shrewsbury by threatening her job as an aide, which she eventually lost.

A.G.’s mother also had her job threatened after she finished a financial audit at the school, which produced some negative findings. About a month after A.G.’s father complained to school board personnel about his daughter’s mistreatment, S.G. was called into a meeting with Akers, the county superintendent, regarding the audit results, where Akers allegedly told her that she “may want to consider other employment options,” the suit reads.

Since Akers and Hayes were made aware of the threats against B.H. and A.G. repeatedly throughout the course of the school year, but failed to act on or report them to the appropriate authorities, the suits allege they did not comply with their mandatory duties to protect children, as outlined in state code.

The suits call for counts of negligence, civil assault and battery, willful misconduct, constitutional violations and more be levied against Belcher, Hayes, Akers and the Mercer County BOE.

These filings are also not the first time a Mercer County teacher has been accused of wrongdoing in a classroom. In 2018, Marlene Robinson, a Bluewell Elementary School special needs teacher, was indicted on three charges of child abuse for harm she caused to children at school. Robinson allegedly dragged one of the victims, a 5-year-old identified in a February lawsuit as C.H., by the arm across the floor of the cafeteria for three minutes, according to a complaint.

State police arrested Robinson after receiving complaints of the abuse and watching video footage from surveillance cameras filming the incident and she was indicted in October.

Representatives with the Mercer County Board of Education and with Cumberland Heights were unavailable to comment on the recently filed complaints Friday.

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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