CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three separate lawsuits filed today in Mercer County Circuit Court claim mistreatment of preschool children and retaliatory action by school officials against those who reported the allegations.
The lawsuits were all filed by Charleston attorney J.B. Akers, who said his clients came to him in January with allegations stemming from a teacher at Cumberland Heights Early Learning Center in Bluefield.
The suits name the Mercer County Board of Education, Mercer County Schools Superintendent Deborah Akers, Steve Hayes, the principal at Cumberland Heights, and teacher Alma Belcher.
“We initially had been waiting to see what might happen on the criminal side,” said Akers, the lawyer.
“We’re not sure if anything will happen, but we did talk to some people in law enforcement and tried to be respectful of that process, but we felt like we needed to go ahead and take action on behalf of these families.”
One complaint was filed on behalf of a three year old boy identified only as “B.H.” in court documents. According to the suit, the child is a special needs student with few verbal skills. The suit alleges Belcher, the teacher in the classroom, engaged in abusive and neglectful conduct toward him.
“B.H.’s hands were glued together for punishment; B.H. was verbally abused; B.H.’s mouth and nose were forcibly covered to stop him from crying to such an extent that he was essentially suffocated; B.H. was illegally and repeatedly placed in a restraint chair in his regular class for long periods of time; B.H. was illegally and repeatedly placed alone in a restraint chair in a separate room, at times with the lights off; B.H.’s hair and arms were pulled”
Another of the plaintiffs, Amanda Shrewsbury, the teacher’s aid in the classroom, contends she reported the abuse repeatedly to her superiors.
“She made dozens of complaints over the course of two months or so that Ms. Belcher was physically grabbing students, screaming at students, and she was not protecting students in the classroom,” Akers said.
A separate complaint claimed Belcher’s alleged belligerent activity wasn’t limited to special needs children. The second suit claims a five-year old girl, who is not a special needs child, began to experience withdrawal and dread of going to school each day.
The child identified in court documents as “A.G.” reluctantly told her parents she was being bullied by another student. Court documents claim she too was being abused by Belcher.
“She was apparently grabbed by Alma Belcher on one occasion and pulled to the extent some of her hair was ripped out of her head. She was also the student who was grabbed by the arm and Alma Belcher screamed in her face” said Akers, the attorney.
“That was reported by the teachers aid, but was unknown to the parents. The little girl said she was being bullied by another student, but didn’t name Ms. Belcher out of fear.”
Complicating the case, the mother of “A.G.” is a principal in another school in the Mercer County School System. Identified only as “S.G.” in the case, she claimed in the same lawsuit her job was threatened.
Shrewsbury, Belcher’s former aide, claimed in a third complaint she too was the target of retaliation because she reported the incidents.
“The teacher’s aide was told she was no longer required to come to Cumberland Heights and that her job had been posted and accepted by another employee. My client who is a principal was told she may want to consider other employment options,” J.B. Akers said.
“This isn’t just about abuse and neglect directed toward students, but it also involves what we believe is retaliatory conduct.”
When contacted by MetroNews, Akers the county superintendent said she was surprised to hear of the suit and had not been served. MetroNews also reached out to Board of Education Attorney Kermit Moore and Mercer County Prosecutor George Sitler.
It is unclear if Belcher is still employed in the Mercer County school system, but Akers the lawyer indicated he was told she was no longer working at Cumberland Heights.
The case follows allegations in Berkeley County of mistreatment of special needs students by a teacher. The Martinsburg case was discovered when the parent planted a recording device in her daughter’s hair and sent her to school.
“My clients in this case called me around the same time that was happening in Berkeley County,” J.B. Akers said. “We have some issues to deal with, and don’t misunderstand, I know these teachers have difficult jobs, but you have to treat these kids with respect and dignity.”