A teacher at an Ann Arbor school taped shut the mouth of a student with cerebral palsy as part of a pattern of abuse, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday against the teacher, her supervisor and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District
Nesa Johnson, a teacher at High Point School, "literally taped ... shut" the student's mouth in March 2016 to keep her quiet because she was "making noises" consistent with her disability, according to the seven-figure lawsuit filed in Detroit by the student's mother, Doreen Smith.
Johnson then photographed the student and texted the photo to the student's mother, with a caption reading: "Help. She won't be quiet!!!!," according to the lawsuit and attached exhibits.
Test message from Nesa Johnson to parents (Photo: DFP)
The student is 26 but unable to speak and appears much younger at just under 5 feet tall and 62 pounds, according to the lawsuit. In addition to cerebral palsy, the student has cognitive disorders, a history of seizures and an inability to speak or move her hands and arms, which leaves her "totally dependent on others for her care including such basic needs as feeding and toileting," the lawsuit states.
The Free Press is not naming the student because of her vulnerable condition.
"Taping a special needs student's mouth shut is appalling in and of itself, but was especially torturous for (someone) who is physically unable to remove the tape, has trouble breathing and clearing her throat, and breathes out of her mouth," the suit alleges.
"Johnson's actions put (the student's) life in jeopardy," and prevented her from communicating in one of the few ways she can — through facial gestures, the suit says.
In addition to Johnson, the suit names as defendants the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and Anne Nakon, who was in charge of special education for the ISD and allegedly had received complaints from the mother but did not act to stop the abuse, the suit says.
"The Washtenaw ISD wants to assure the parents of our district that we take the health, safety, and education of all of our students very seriously," the district said in a statement sent to the Free Press on Wednesday.
"As to the subject of this lawsuit, the family did not report this, or any other complaint to the district until nearly a year after it occurred. During that subsequent year, the student continued attending school, in the same classroom, with the same teacher. When we were first informed of the family’s concern, we immediately conducted a complete investigation and took appropriate remedial action."
Washtenaw ISD spokeswoman Emma Jackson said neither Johnson nor Nakon are still employed by the ISD, though neither was fired. She could not say whether their departures were related to the allegations in the federal complaint.
Johnson did not immediately respond to a phone message.
Nakon said in an e-mail that she was contacted about the allegations several months ago and "shared that I was unaware of any misconduct toward this student or any student.
"I would never condone such a behavior and, had I been made aware of or suspected any mistreatment of a student, would have immediately investigated the situation to protect the student," Nakon said.
The suit alleges the taping incident was part of a pattern of abuse at the school for special needs students going back to 2004, when scalding hot coffee was poured on the student's leg while she was in the care of another teacher, resulting in third-degree burns to her leg.
The school claimed the student caused the injury to herself, but the suit alleges the student "lacks the manual dexterity to move her arms in such a way that she would have the ability to reach out and knock over a container of hot liquid."
The school did not inform the student`'s mother about the incident, the suit alleges. Instead, she found out when she picked up her daughter at her bus stop and found "the skin on her leg burned off," leaving permanent scars.
The mother's Detroit attorney, Jonathan Marko, said any abuse of students is wrong, but "this case is particularly disturbing," because the young woman "is not able to defend herself and is entirely reliant on others — in this case her very abusers — for help."
The suit will seek damages easily into seven figures, he said.
Asked why the mother didn't pull her daughter out of the school much sooner, Marko said the family was not made aware of the full scope of the abuse, and school officials assured them that any issues were being addressed. The former student is now at home 24-7, he said.
Michigan's special education programs serve eligible students only through age 25, according to the Michigan Department of Education website.
In another incident, in February 2017, a district employee slapped the student several times outside the school, in plain view of students and school employees, prompting a complaint to the student's mother from a district bus driver, the suit alleges.
In 2007, while in Johnson's care, the student suffered injuries to her forearm, including "a deep gouge and missing skin with a bloodied scab," the suit alleges. The student lacks the dexterity to inflict such an injury on herself, the suit alleges.
The student would come home from school with her diaper soaked in urine, indicating she had sat that way much of the day, the suit alleges.
Johnson also locked the student in a bathroom one day, after she came to school with a cold, requiring that phlegm be suctioned from her naval passages, the suit alleges.
When the student's mother called the school to check on her daughter that day, Johnson told her the student was "gargling her spit" and "placed in a locked bathroom alone" after she was warned to stop, but did not, the suit alleges.
The student's mother also noticed her daughter was often returning from school asleep or lethargic, leading her to believe the school was over-medicating her "in order to quiet her down and cause her to fall asleep."
The student's mother complained repeatedly about these and other incidents, but school officials took no remedial action, the suit alleges. Eventually, the student became afraid to attend school and her mother withdrew her, the suit alleges.
The suit states the student was deprived of educational opportunities and her constitutional rights to personal security, bodily integrity, equal protection of the law and the right to be free from fear, harm, personal assault and bodily restraint. It also alleges excessive force, battery, violation of Michigan's Social Welfare Act and failure to properly train school employees.
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