The Brentwood Union School District has agreed to pay $950,000 to a Contra Costa family whose 5-year-old special needs child was thrown to the floor and kicked by a teacher in a classroom two years ago, one of many complaints of physical and mental abuse by the teacher that went unreported to authorities as mandated by law, according to attorneys.
The former Loma Vista Elementary School teacher, Dina Holder, 52, of Brentwood, was eventually convicted of child abuse for the incident, but school officials transferred her to another Brentwood school to continue teaching, with no parents receiving any warning.
School employees who suspect or know about abuse are required to report it to police or Child Protective Services. School districts are also supposed to provide training for employees so they can recognize signs of abuse and know their responsibilities for reporting it to law enforcement authorities.
"The abuse towards this young boy could have been prevented, but there was a systematic failure of school district employees to comply with their mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse," said Peter Alfert, an attorney for the boy's family.
Several high-profile cases in the spotlight recently, including in San Jose and Moraga, revealed how children were subjected to continued abuse because nobody spoke up on their behalf.
In the Brentwood case, the family sued the school district, Holder and Loma Vista Elementary principal Lauri James in January 2012 claiming battery, negligence, failed mandated reporting duties and other infractions. As part of the settlement, Holder must leave the classroom now and retire at the end of the school year.
"My victory was having her leave that classroom and never come back," said Caneel Carlin, the 36-year-old mother of the victim and a Concord resident. "I truly believe they were covering this up, and it went as high as the district. It was like a bad movie. A bad nightmare."
It turns out, Holder was not even credentialed to teach autistic children, yet had many in her classes, according to Carlin's attorneys.
"This was way beyond bad teaching or not proper technique; this was stepping over into abuse," said Todd Boley, one of the attorneys.
Calls and emails to Holder, James and Brentwood superintendent Merrill Grant were not returned Tuesday.
In 2010, Carlin's son was a 3 1/2-foot-tall, 60-pound pre-kindergarten student.
The boy had received special education services due to autistic-type behaviors and a speech and language disorder since fall 2009. He was often reluctant to talk and responded to questions in whispers.
He was in Holder's "Special Day Class" along with other special needs students, many who had serious speech problems.
On May 25, 2010, after Carlin's son failed to join a circle of students at Holder's request, she grabbed his arm and threw him to the floor from his desk and kicked him at least two times while screaming obscenities at him. About a dozen fellow students and instructional aides watched, according to the lawsuit.
"She was so agitated that one of the instructional aides present took her out of the room to calm her down," according to the lawsuit.
The boy was so upset he had to be carried to the bus at the end of school, the lawsuit claimed.
The next morning, the boy's mother noticed a bruise on his back and asked him what happened. "I just got hurt at school, Mom," Carlin said he told her.
The first report of the incident came two days later when instructional aides from the boy's class informed the principal, who then reported the incident to district officials. None of them, however, contacted the boy's parents nor police or CPS as mandated by law.
On June 1, 2010, James called the boy's mother and told her an "incident" happened the previous week and requested a meeting with the parents, an aide from the boy's class and an assistant superintendent from the district. It was the first time the parents heard details of the incident, Carlin said.
The principal informed them that Holder had been placed on paid administrative leave and the incident would be investigated and kept confidential. The parents went to Brentwood police immediately after the meeting.
Holder was arrested, pleaded no contest Oct. 6, 2011 to misdemeanor child abuse and was sentenced to four years probation.
Carlin could not stop thinking of how she sent her son for two more days to Holder's class after the abuse.
"I was just horrified. It's something I still deal with," she said, her eyes tearing up. "I had taken him back to someone who did that to him without knowing."
The boy's abuse could have been prevented had the Brentwood district acted on a long history of complaints against Holder, the mother said.
In several cases, the childrens' disabilities made the complaints against Holder difficult to pursue, according to allegations made by witnesses in depositions, including a 3-year-old boy shaken violently, a 3-year-old slapped in the face, a toddler taped to a chair and a 3-year-old Down Syndrome student in her care found wandering in the school parking lot.
"This has been going on now for years and I believe she used her special needs kids in her class, and their disabilities, against them," Carlin said.
A youth law expert said the incident involving Carlin's son and four others clearly met the mandated reporting threshold.
"This isn't really on the border," said William Grimm, senior attorney with the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law. "These are reportable incidents that should have been reported and the teacher long removed from the classroom."
Despite the list of serious complaints, Holder worked in the same special needs position at Krey Elementary School until Friday. As part of the settlement, Holder was forced to immediately leave the classroom, take a desk job and resign at the end of the year.
Holder's treatment of her son will forever haunt her, Carlin said.
"I looked to her for advice. I looked to her for guidance," she said. "He's my first child and she was my first teacher in this process of motherhood and I was betrayed and I will live with that every single day."
Staff writer Malaika Fraley contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.