Two families filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against a highly regarded residential and day school for special education students in New Hampshire, alleging that several staff members verbally or physically abused their children.
In one instance, a classroom aide at the school run by the Crotched Mountain Foundation, in Greenfield, N.H., is accused of taking a picture of a naked 7-year-old boy on a toilet and posting it temporarily on the Internet while another aide laughed about the picture with colleagues, according to the civil lawsuit filed in the federal courthouse in Concord, N.H.
The boy, who lives in Sunapee, N.H., and has a disorder that limits his ability to communicate and comprehend, was also subjected to other physical abuse, such as pinching of his genitals and other body parts, the suit alleges.
The boy’s parents are joined in the lawsuit by the grandmother of a 12-year-old girl who also has limited communication abilities and who shared the same teacher and classroom aides. The suit alleges the teacher slapped the girl’s buttocks and an aide slapped her face.
The school, according to the lawsuit, failed to promptly inform the families about the alleged incidents, depriving them of the ability to comfort the children or get counseling. The two families are seeking unspecified monetary damages to cover medical costs associated with the alleged abuse.
Three of the classroom aides named in the civil suit are also facing criminal charges related to the allegations of physical and verbal abuse against the boy. The teacher is named in the civil suit only.
The parents of the boy said in a telephone interview they were guilt ridden by their decision to place the boy at the school in 2011 as a day student.
“All along, we thought they were helping him, but they were torturing the poor kid,” said the boy’s father, James Giberson. “We, as parents, have to be advocates to let people know what is going on here.”
Peter Alfert and Todd Boley, two attorneys based in California who are representing the families, said the case highlights a nationwide problem of students with special needs being victimized by school employees. Earlier this year, the two settled a series of child abuse cases against two California school districts for $17 million.
“What turns up over and over again is a reluctance to report a co-employee and actual concealment of the acts to prevent law enforcement from finding out about it,” Alfert said. “When you conceal an act, you are as bad as the perpetrator.”
Crotched Mountain defended its handling of the allegations.
In regards to the boy’s case, the foundation said it reported the allegations to the parents, the police, and the state Division for Children, Youth and Families, and terminated the three aides facing criminal charges.
“The behavior that is alleged here is deeply disturbing and absolutely antithetical to Crotched Mountain’s founding principle that everyone deserves to experience life with the highest level of dignity and respect,” Michael Redmond, the foundation’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, said in a statement regarding the boy’s case.
In the case of the girl, the foundation said the police and the appropriate agencies in New Hampshire and Vermont, where the girl is from, declined to investigate further.
Crotched Mountain Foundation, founded in 1953, serves more than 2,000 children and adults with complex disabilities through its school, hospital, and other services.
Many students — including about two dozen from Massachusetts school districts — are placed through federally mandated individualized educational plans.
Its chief executive, Donald Shumway, is a former commissioner of health and human services in New Hampshire.
Two of the three classroom aides named in the civil suit, Bethany Smith and Heather Murawske, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Shawn Sullivan, an attorney for the other aide named in the civil suit, Jessica Burt, said, “We are going to vigorously defend any criminal or civil charges.”
The Gibersons said they first suspected abuse earlier this year.
On several occasions, according to the lawsuit, the boy’s mother, Jessica Giberson, noticed his penis was red and swollen, and the boy told him someone in the classroom had squeezed it. The mother reported her concerns to the teacher, but nothing came of it, the lawsuit says.
His family said the boy was exhibiting other abnormal signs at home, waking up in distress in the middle of the night over fears about ghosts. As it turned out, one of the aides “intentionally instilled fear in [him] by telling him there were ghosts under his bed,” the lawsuit said.
Then on June 6, the mother received a call from the school informing her about the naked photo and that classroom aides were aggressively pinching him on different body parts. The boy’s father said the school only notified authorities at his insistence.
Jessica Giberson said she wished she knew sooner.
“I saw signs he didn’t want to go to school,” she said. “He would lay in his room, cross his legs and arms, and refuse to get dressed. Sometimes I would have to carry him out to the bus.”