The Brentwood special education teacher convicted of throwing a 5-year-old special needs student onto a classroom floor and kicking him was transferred to another class and not fired because of "legal limitations" on teacher personnel decisions, the district superintendent said Wednesday.
In a case that has sparked outrage, Brentwood Union School District Superintendent Merrill Grant apologized for the actions of special education teacher Dina Holder, 52, of Brentwood, a 20-year teacher in the district.
"The actions that led to the lawsuit are both appalling and upsetting," Grant said. "I'm a parent in the district and I reacted the same way as the rest of the community ... We're deeply sorry for what this family and child have endured."
On Friday, the Brentwood school district finalized a $950,000 settlement with Caneel Carlin's family stemming from a January 2012 lawsuit against the school district, Holder and Loma Vista Elementary Principal Lauri James, claiming battery, negligence, failed mandated reporting duties and other infractions.
Carlin, a 36-year-old Concord resident and mother of the victim, said she reported the incident to police and it was only then that Holder was held accountable for the May 2010 incident at Loma Vista Elementary School.
Grant acknowledged Wednesday police were not alerted by district employees after that incident.
The state requires school employees and other "mandated reporters" who become aware of abuse to notify police or Child Protective Services.
Holder pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor child abuse charge in October 2011 and received four years probation, along with a year of child abuse training and an order to stay away from her victim.
As part of the civil settlement, Holder must leave the classroom, take a desk job and retire at the end of the school year.
However, she still has her credential and could potentially teach elsewhere if hired, said Todd Boley, Carlin's attorney.
"Hopefully," the Oakland lawyer said, "prospective employers will Google her name before hiring her."
Why not fired?
While restricted in what he could say regarding personnel decisions, Grant said once the Loma Vista principal was notified of the incident two days after it happened, Holder was placed on paid administrative leave for the rest of the year -- only four school days.
The superintendent said the district, based on legal advice, "pursued all measures available to us to hold the employee accountable. Had there been more expedient measures available, we would have" taken them.
"Teacher dismissals are very complex, very cumbersome and it takes a lot of time," he said.
The decision was made to transfer Holder to Krey Elementary in Brentwood at the start of the 2011-12 school year to continue teaching special needs children.
"We changed her grade level and placement and provided her proper oversight with many aides for more accountability," Grant said. He also explained why she wasn't moved to a desk job at that point.
"I think any option was available ... but we felt we had many safeguards in place," Grant said, including placing adult aides in the classroom with Holder.
Attorney Boley said adding adult aides as "safeguards" made no sense since there were three adult aides in her classroom when she kicked his young client.
All school employees who deal with children are "mandated reporters" who must report any suspicions of abuse to police or Child Protective Services immediately by phone, and then through a written report within 36 hours.
Grant acknowledged Wednesday that the principal did not contact police after being notified by aides of the kicking incident.
James did notify CPS, according to testimony, but her verbal report came two days after first learning of the incident and she never submitted a written report, Boley said.
School districts are supposed to provide training so employees can recognize signs of abuse and know their reporting responsibilities. 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.
Grant said this incident has his district reflecting.
"Yearly they are reminded about it ... It's very much a part of public education, but this gave us pause," he said. "We have 700 employees and we need to keep them informed."
Parents, aides and other employees interviewed and deposed as part of the boy's lawsuit portrayed Holder's "Special Day Class" as a horrifying experience for the children, all aged 3 to 5 and most with severe speech issues.
One parent, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her son's identity, had warned the principal in 2008 that she saw Holder shaking her 3-year-old son through the glass window of the classroom violently enough to make his head shake. Her son, who could not speak, signed "All done! All done!" before his mother rushed in. The teacher denied she shook that boy, and the principal told the mother she investigated and found no evidence of it, she said. Police also declined to pursue an investigation, the mother said, saying the district already completed its investigation and found no wrongdoing.
Calls to police were not returned Wednesday
Also in 2008, a 3-year-old special needs child claimed to have been slapped by Holder. The principal was alerted, attorneys learned through their investigation. A police inquiry stalled, they said, because the child was nonverbal, and aides, in depositions, said they were scared to report because Holder was their boss.
Depositions with employees who worked in Holder's classroom described a troubling environment.
"There are several depositions in which employees describe appalling conditions in the classroom," Boley said. "Holder was not teaching; she was playing solitaire at her computer, yelling at kids and staff, shoving kids into chairs. One stated that it was 'common knowledge' at the school, but nobody did anything despite direct requests to the head of special education for the district. One aide was willing to confirm that she was 'afraid' to report the fact that Holder had 'stopped teaching.'"
Holder's credential did not allow her to work with autistic children, according to the state agency overseeing teachers, even though she worked with many.
A call to Holder's attorney was not returned, and a call and email to James Wednesday were not returned.
Board members remained mostly mum Wednesday. They voted in closed session Jan. 9 to make the settlement agreement, trustee Emil Geddes said.
"It's a personnel issue and really sensitive," he said. "Believe me, I'm not happy about the suit and about the concerns, but I need to talk to our legal counsel to make sure I'm not violating any rights."
As for why Holder was not fired after her conviction, Gedees said, "It's not that our hands are completely tied. It's that we have to do our correct procedures with personnel issues before we can do something."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.