Girl sought relief from bullying. In exchange, teacher’s aide demanded massages, she says
Hazel could not stand the bullying anymore.
At lunch, the other children at her school in Lawrence mocked her weight and the way she ate. One time a boy threw an apple at her thighs to make them jiggle, she said. Gym class was especially unbearable.
The 13-year-old, a student at the School for Exceptional Studies in Lawrence, told the teachers’ aides she didn’t want to participate, and they allowed her and another girl to sit on the bleachers instead. But one of the aides later had a demand, Hazel said: She wanted the girls to give her a massage.
Hazel told investigators with the state’s child-protection agency that last fall she felt forced to give the aide half a dozen massages, contact that began as back rubs but progressed to the woman’s legs and inner thighs.This happened as a second aide, a man, watched and encouraged the massages, the girl alleged.
Hazel said she still feels shame.
“I feel bad about myself,” Hazel said, weeping as she recalled the experience during an interview with the Globe. “I feel like it’s my fault.”
Hazel’s parents have removed her from the public school, an alternative program for children with behavioral issues and special needs, and the federal Department of Education has agreed to investigate whether Hazel was discriminated against on the basis of her sex and her disabilities.
The state Department of Children and Families investigated Hazel’s complaint and concluded the interactions between the girls and the two aides did not “appear to be of a sexual nature,” according to an agency report provided by Hazel’s parents.
The report stated that the school aides denied any physical contact with the students even though both girls told DCF investigators that they were asked to massage the female aide.
The second student partially corroborated Hazel’s allegations, telling a DCF investigator that she was asked to massage the female aide’s neck and back. However, the girl said the massages took place at lunchtime and she could not recall seeing another student massage the female aide.
In an interview with investigators, the second child said that “one day she came to school and [the female aide] said they can’t hug because the principal said they can’t touch students.”
The aides’ “denial of any activity is concerning, given that both girls describe some degree of contact,” the DCF report stated.
A spokeswoman for the DCF declined to comment on the incident. Christopher Markuns, a spokesman for the Lawrence School District, said that the school took Hazel’s allegations seriously.
“We conducted a thorough investigation into all of these concerns immediately upon receiving them, at the conclusion of which we took appropriate action,” he said. “We additionally requested and cooperated with an investigation by an outside agency, and to this date have received findings consistent with our own.”
According to the DCF report, the female aide was given a written warning for an “inappropriate interaction with a student.”
Neither of the two aides could be reached for comment.
Both aides remain employed by the district, a fact that infuriates Hazel’s parents, who question whether other children have been mistreated at a school designed to help vulnerable students.
Hazel reads at a kindergarten level and is prone to severe tantrums, her parents said. When she was 5, she tried to commit suicide by walking into a busy street. Her alleged mistreatment has compounded her emotional troubles, they said.
“This is a child who already had issues and then you put so much more stress on top of this little girl,” said Hazel’s mother, Sharon Bimbo, 34. “I’m upset and I want answers.”
Because of Hazel’s age and sensitive circumstances, the Globe is withholding her last name, which is different from her parents’.
Carrie Kimball, a spokeswoman for the Essex County district attorney’s office, which investigated the family’s complaints, said “at this point in time we have not identified sufficient evidence for a criminal charge.”
But the couple’s lawyer, Tyler Fox, said Hazel was mistreated by those entrusted with her care.
“What is outrageous about this is that Hazel’s parents chose this school for her particularly because it was supposedly a school that would help students with her kinds of disabilities,” Fox said.
Hazel said she and the other girl would spend gym period with the two aides in the bleachers, behind a curtain that divided them from the rest of the class.
One day, the female aide told Hazel that she needed to give her a back massage so she would not lose any more points in the school’s reward system. The male aide rolled up her sleeve and rubbed Hazel’s hand “to show her how to massage [the female aide’s] hand correctly,” according to the account Hazel gave the DCF.
The teenager told the Globe she was disgusted.
“ ‘Why do I have to do this?’ “ she recalled asking him. “ ‘This is nasty bro.’ ”
The aide told her not to disrespect them, she said.
The sessions became more uncomfortable, and on one occasion the man put his hand on Hazel’s as she rubbed the woman’s leg, Hazel told investigators.
In early November, Hazel came home with her fingers swollen and bloodied, according to her mother. The school had suspended her for one day.
Hazel told DCF that she saw the female aide in the hallway. The aide grabbed her and took her into a room, where staffers got so close to her face they accidentally spit on her, according to what Hazel and her family told investigators. Hazel said she spit back.
The encounter became so physical, Hazel said, some of the acrylic nails her mother had given her for Halloween ripped off. She then told her mother about the massages.
Markuns said school officials investigated the incident in the hallway and found there was no physical contact initiated by any school employee. The principal acknowledged that Hazel’s fingernails “popped off” but “denied any injury to Hazel’s fingers,” according to the report.
The DCF did not make a determination that Hazel was ordered to give any massages and noted that she reported the incidents only after she was suspended. But the second student backed up some of her claims, the report found.
“The other student’s disclosure was unsolicited, and without any precipitating or motivating influence,” the report stated. “There is no reason to raise question [about] her credibility.”
Hazel, who is now being home-schooled while her parents look for a new school, said she wants accountability.
“I cried about the story so many times, but now I’m just mad about it,” she said. “Now, I’m just done. Done.”