The parent of a Burton child claims in a recent lawsuit that her daughter was sexually assaulted by another student during a local Head Start class and that teachers did little to protect her child from further abuse.
The mother filed the lawsuit Feb. 2 against the Beaufort County School District and Beaufort Elementary School — about a year after she claims that her daughter was abused at Beaufort Elementary’s location of Beaufort-Jasper EOC Head Start. The mother’s name is being withheld so as not to identify her juvenile daughter.
District spokesman Jim Foster said representatives of the S.C. School Boards Insurance Trust would handle the district’s response, though Beaufort-Jasper EOC Head Start staff are not employed by the district, and the victim was not enrolled as a district student at the time of the alleged incident.
The suit does not name the Head Start program, in which the victim was enrolled. Beaufort-Jasper EOC Head Start executive director Leroy Gilliard said this week he was unaware of the lawsuit and unfamiliar with the results of the school’s investigation a year ago.
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Head Start is a federal program that provides poor children from birth to age 5 with free educational programs, nutritious meals and health care. The Beaufort County School District has an agreement that allows Head Start to operate its federal programs in four district buildings, supervised independently by Head Start staff, Foster said.
In addition to Beaufort Elementary, the programs are housed in Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary, St. Helena Elementary and James J. Davis Early Childhood Center.
The mother’s attorney, Marshall Horton of Bluffton, said he will make revisions to the parties of the lawsuit as needed.
“The defendants failure to act was egregious and grossly negligence,” the suit claims. Employees’ conduct, it later states, “was extreme and outrageous to the point that it (exceeds) all possible bounds of decency and must be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
Horton said the mother does not know the results of the Head Start program’s investigation, and did not have additional information on the child’s situation.
However, a police report the mother filed with the Beaufort Police Department in February 2015 sheds further light on the program’s handling of the incident.
When a program teacher who partially witnessed the incident approached the girl, she said it happened “all the time.”
Beaufort Police Department report
When officers determined no charges would be filed because the suspect was just 4-years-old, the girl’s mother told police “she (was) more concerned with getting both (the victim and suspect) the help and counseling they need,” according to the police report.
The female victim, also 4, was reportedly touched inappropriately in February 2015, while the children were watching a movie at Head Start, the police report states.
A program teacher who partially witnessed the incident approached the girl. The child said it happened “all the time,” according to the report.
Subsequent interviews with the children and their guardians raised what can be seen as red flags about past abuse in both children’s lives, and prompted Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, Beaufort’s nonprofit child advocacy and rape crisis center, to recommend further counseling, according to details from the report.
Still, program employees told police that both children had to remain in the same class because they could not “go over ratio” and had to “follow procedure,” the report said.
Gilliard said Head Start must not exceed certain students-to-teachers ratio that are laid out in state and federal law.
He added that it’s “common” for young children to touch one another, and that the school’s employees “were aghast” that police were called for the February 2015 incident.
When asked again if the situation was common, Gilliard said, “If you had the experience we have with children, yes.”
He also said the suspect was a “challenged student.” That wasn’t mentioned in the 2015 police report, in which employees simply said he was a “normal boy,” who kept to himself and was a “‘don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you’ type of person.’”
In that report, when the investigating officer asked the program a second time what they planned to do, a social services manager said Head Start would not separate the children, at least until the police and the program finished their investigations.
The police concluded their investigation in March, ruling the allegations unfounded due to the ages of the children, the fact that the boy did not admit to touching the female victim and the lack of physical evidence.
Gilliard said the manager who conducted the program’s investigation was not at work Tuesday, but he planned to follow up with her Wednesday to review her notes. She and the program manager still work at Beaufort-Jasper EOC Head Start. One of the children’s teachers is now a substitute teacher, and the other is no longer employed with Head Start, Gilliard said.
Reached Wednesday, Gilliard would not comment further, citing the pending lawsuit.
“Anything I tell you could be construed as we did something wrong, and I don’t think we did,” he said, adding that it’s parents’ right to file lawsuits if they disagree. “The lawyers are going to fight this out.”