Lawsuit: Clark County School District officials put kids at risk of abuse

A civil rights lawsuit alleges Clark County School District authorities allowed disabled students to remain in a dangerous situation with an abusive aide while they used hidden cameras to conduct an undercover operation.

The allegations appear in an amended complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court by John and Dina Phipps, the parents of an autistic child who is nonverbal. The boy was a 10-year-old student at Variety School, a school for disabled students, when the allegations arose.

“This case involves the worst kind of abuse — the abuse of a disabled child who is unable to care for himself,” according to the revised complaint.

The case originally was filed in November in Clark County District Court, but the school district removed the case to federal court in January. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys J. Mitchell Cobeaga, Robert Murdock and Eckley Keach.

Defendants include the school district and Lachelle James, a former teacher’s aide who was arrested in March 2012 on five counts of child abuse and one count of battery. She was 28 at the time.

“Student safety is our top priority at all times,” said Melinda Malone, a school district spokeswoman. “We strive every day to provide a safe environment for every child. We cannot comment on pending litigation.”

Malone said only that James “is not on paid status with the district.”

According to the amended lawsuit, at least one of the teachers at Variety School “abused and tortured the children,” including the son of John and Dina Phipps.

“When a different parent suspected her own child was being abused, she reported it to the proper authorities,” the document alleges. “What happened next is shocking. With knowledge of the abuse these children had suffered, at the hands of this teacher, rather than protecting the children from any further abuse, they undertook an undercover operation with hidden cameras. With deliberate indifference, the school district authorities allowed these children to remain in this dangerous situation subject to further abuse.”

The son of John and Dina Phipps began attending Variety School in the spring of 2010, according to the lawsuit; in August 2011, he began the school year with various substitute teachers.

As the school year went on, the lawsuit alleges, the parents noticed random rug burns and bruises on their son and complained to the principal. The parents were told the principal had investigated the matter and found that the boy had caused his own injuries.

“Around 2012, unbeknownst to plaintiffs, another parent from the same classroom alleged that they suspected abuse in the classroom,” according to the lawsuit.

The other parent contacted school district personnel, placing the district on notice “that a child’s constitutional rights were likely violated.”

Instead of notifying parents of students in the class, the document alleges, school district personnel “used the children as pawns and bait” and set up a “covert surveillance” of the classroom. They then monitored the hidden cameras at an off-site location through a live Internet feed.

“The CCSD personnel knew they were merely going to be able to view and witness the continued torture of these children with no ability to intervene as the abuse was being inflicted and as these innocent victims suffered even more,” according to the lawsuit. “This all came true.”

On March 6, 2012, the lawsuit alleges, the son of John and Dina Phipps “was subjected to torture and abuse” when James and a substitute teacher dragged the boy by his arms into the center of the classroom.

According to the document, James then grabbed the boy by his left arm and dragged him “face first on the ground” before placing her right knee and shin on his lower back, buttocks and left leg, and pinning him to the ground.

James repeatedly dragged the boy and pinned him down, according to the lawsuit, and “it appears as if Ms. James was attempting to break his arm.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified general, special and punitive damages.

“The CCSD personnel have admitted that the actions of defendant James were inappropriate and served no legitimate purpose,” according to the document.

The lawsuit accuses the school district of discrimination on the basis of disability. It also claims the district “failed to train and/or supervise its teachers and employees as to appropriate discipline, safety, and supervision of its students.”

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.