PAHRUMP — Tanner Reynolds remembers the stinging pain of the gravel, cold from the winter air, rubbing against his face that day in December.
“This isn’t right,” he recalled thinking to himself.
The 13-year-old claims he was pinned to the ground just outside his dorm room at Northwest Academy, a private boarding school for at-risk teens and adolescents at the edge of Amargosa Valley, by staff member Caleb Hill.
He claims that Hill, 29, had slammed him to the ground, apparently upset that Tanner had crossed over into someone else’s dorm room while trying to get to a bathroom.
About a month later, his mother, Angela McDonald, removed him from the program. She said she reported the December incident to the county’s Juvenile Probation Office on Jan. 7, shortly before the Nye County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation into the school and reported that several other students had complained of abuse by Hill.
Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Thomas Metscher declined to comment Thursday, citing the open investigation.
Hill was arrested Jan. 29 by the Nye County Sheriff’s Office on suspicion of child abuse in connection with another incident involving a 14-year-old student.
Formal charges against Hill had not been filed in Beatty Justice Court as of Thursday afternoon. Jail records show that he remained at the Nye County Detention Center, where he is awaiting his initial court appearance.
Hill’s attorney, Thomas Gibson, did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
Once on the ground that day in December, Tanner alleges, Hill pressed his knees against the teen’s back. Tanner said he tried more than once to get out from under Hill, but the staff member was twice his size.
Tanner, who attended the school from Nov. 16 to Jan. 6, did not initially tell anyone about the encounter — not his family representative, not his “dorm parent,” not even his mom.
“How could he? Who are they going to report it to?” McDonald asked during an interview Wednesday inside her ranch-style Pahrump home. “Are they going to report it to the staff who’s doing it and watching it happen, or to me, when they aren’t allowed to talk to me without staff in the room?”
The Sheriff’s Office has said it launched its investigation after receiving complaints from a former staff member and a former student, who told police he was slammed to the floor by Hill on several occasions, although an arrest report for Hill indicated that the agency was investigating an incident that occurred Jan. 4.
The investigation also led to the discovery of arsenic in the school’s water. A notification of the contaminated water was sent to parents on Dec. 13, according to an email obtained by the Review-Journal.
According to the notification, the contamination was detected Nov. 6 and was caused by “erosion of natural deposits; Runoff from orchards; Runoff from glass and electronics production wastes.”
The email stated, “This is not an Emergency! You do not need to Reply!”
McDonald replied anyway, asking, “Do I need to buy cases of water for my son?”
She said she did not receive a response. But by early January, the water contamination was the least of her concerns.
McDonald pulled Tanner out of the school two days after the incident that led to Hill’s arrest. Two other mothers whose sons also were attending Northwest Academy had called her to inform her of incidents at the school.
“That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” McDonald said.
That night, Tanner told his mom everything.
But because he was no longer a student by the time the official investigation was opened, he was not one of the students interviewed by Nye County detectives last week.
Sending Tanner away was the most difficult decision McDonald had ever had to make, she said, but his anger issues and attitude were getting him into trouble.
“I’m not doing this because I don’t love you,” she recalled saying to Tanner on Nov. 16, his first day at Northwest Academy. “I’m doing this because I do love you.”
After dropping him off at the school with the help of a juvenile probation officer, she said she was promised by on-site staff that she would receive a call that night with her son’s treatment and program plan.
“Well, that call never came,” McDonald said.
Exactly 14 days went by until she received an update on the program and her son, according to an email sent to her Nov. 30 by Tanner’s family representative.
Then, she said, 15 more days had come and gone before she finally got to speak to her son over the phone. During his time there, Tanner had been allowed two short phone calls with his mom — both of which he said were monitored by a staff member.
Next to Tanner on the couch during Wednesday’s interview, McDonald shook her head. Her guilt, she said, has been unbearable, knowing her son felt he couldn’t speak up.
“To find out I put my son in a position to be hurt by other people — ” McDonald said, trailing off before letting out a big sigh. She was crying now.
Tanner was quiet, with his head low in his lap.
“I’m sorry,” McDonald whispered. “I’ve told him I’m sorry.”