A Horace Mann Middle School teacher and two aides beat and berated two nonverbal special education students earlier this month, Charleston police and two civil lawsuits claim.
The lawsuits, filed Wednesday, allege that the employees refused to take the children to the restroom for long periods of time, forcing one of them to “urinate on himself.” Then, they “physically and verbally abused him.”
All three employees — teacher Anthony Wilson and aides Lillian, or Lilliana, Branham and Walter Pannell — were arraigned Wednesday in Kanawha County Magistrate Court on misdemeanor battery charges. None has returned requests for comment.
Detective J.A. McMaster wrote in a criminal complaint that video from May 4 shows Pannell pushing a student off his seat, dragging the child back onto it and later spanking him and threatening to punch him in the nose.
McMaster wrote in another complaint that video from May 12 shows Pannell grabbing a female student by the back of her neck and shaking her while yelling at her. Pannell later grabbed her by the top of her neck and spanked her, McMaster wrote.
He wrote in another complaint that video from May 12 shows Branham grabbing a student by the chin to make the child look at her. Later, the detective wrote, Branham slapped the child “multiple times.”
In yet another complaint, McMaster wrote that video from May 12 shows that Wilson held a female student in place while an aide shook her. Wilson and an aide swung the child onto a beanbag where she nearly hit her head on a cabinet, the complaint states.
The lawsuits filed in Kanawha Circuit Court accuse the employees of striking both children in the face “numerous times,” hitting them elsewhere and “screaming and shouting” in their faces “numerous times.”
Charleston-based attorney Ben Salango said the incidents are from about only 20 minutes of video from two days this month. But, he said, the Kanawha school system has preserved 90 days of video.
“We don’t know what the other 90 days will show,” Salango said.
He said he has video of a third child being abused, which means at least one more lawsuit is coming. He said “we’re conducting an investigation to determine whether other children were abused.”
The employees are being sued with the county school system. Filed by the mother of one child and the guardian of another, the lawsuits allege that the school system failed to properly screen, train and supervise the employees.
Salango and fellow attorney Michael Cary, of Cary Law Office in Charleston, said the parent and guardian discovered the abuse after Horace Mann administrators, Charleston police and Child Protective Services called one of them on May 12.
The school system allowed the parent and the guardian to watch the videos, the attorneys said.
Schools spokeswoman Briana Warner said in an email that state law prevents schools from reviewing such footage “without a suspicion from a party listed.”
“There was no suspicion from any event on May 4 until after the May 12 incident, which the school system found and reported immediately to law enforcement, CPS [Child Protective Services] and parents,” Warner wrote. “This was thanks to a diligent administrator’s suspicion of something going on in the classroom and video could then be reviewed.”
“KCS [Kanawha County Schools] also wants to hold everyone in this situation accountable,” she wrote, “and that’s why we are the ones that reported the incident and are cooperating to the fullest extent with law enforcement and CPS investigations.”
Salango said he’s asked the school system to publicly release the videos, but officials have not.
“It’s undeniable, it’s indefensible and there’s video evidence of the abuse,” he said. “The children’s faces are obscured in the videos and all parents have authorized the release of the videos, yet they refuse to make the videos public.”
In one of the lawsuits, employees are accused of pushing an autistic student, injuring his knee.
“Although [the student] was injured and visibly in pain, Defendants rendered no aid and forced [him] to stand and attempt to walk unassisted,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit states that the employees waited hours to contact the school nurse, and then told her they weren’t sure why the child was limping. His mother said Wilson told her the child “tripped and fell over a beanbag.”
Salango said the school system “clearly did not review the video surveillance after the injury was reported [May 4] because, if they had reviewed the video surveillance, they would have plainly seen the abuse.”
Cary said the child’s knee injury might require surgery.
“This case is about making sure these teachers never have the chance to abuse another child,” Cary said.
The employees refused to take the child to the restroom, forcing him to urinate on himself, the lawsuit states.
Pannell “violently” picked up the boy, the lawsuit says. Pannell also is accused of “dragging [the child] by his shirt.”
On May 12, eight days after the knee injury, the school, police and Child Protective Services called the guardian about an incident involving a child with Cornelia de Lange syndrome, according to a lawsuit filed by the guardian. Cornelia de Lange syndrome is a rare genetic disorder with widely varying symptoms, including delayed growth, intellectual disability and limb defects, according to the National Institutes of Health. It affects 1 in every 10,000 newborns.
On May 13, the lawsuit states, the guardian saw video of the three employees physically and verbally abusing the child. An employee grabbed the child by the neck and screamed at her, the lawsuit says.
On both May 4 and May 12, the student “was not taken to the restroom and was physically and verbally forced to sit on a beanbag or chair for the entirety of both days.”
Salango was the lead counsel in Berkeley County cases that claimed public school employees abused similar students. The cases were settled, but Berkeley hasn’t released the financial details.
Those allegations contributed to the West Virginia Legislature’s passage in 2019 of a law that requires video cameras in public school special education classrooms and allows parents and guardians to view the video.