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Amended lawsuit claims Clark County School District hid allegations of abuse

The parents of two autistic brothers say Clark County School District employees have continued to conceal allegations of abuse at a school for disabled students since the couple filed a civil rights lawsuit in November 2012.

In the lawsuit, John and Dina Phipps alleged their younger son was abused at Variety School in Las Vegas in 2012.

According to a document filed in March in the ongoing case, the parents learned recently about abuse allegations involving three other students, including their older son. Both of their sons are nonverbal. The document also recounts the testimony of a school police detective who said Variety staff did not want to get involved in his investigation.

“This shows a pattern of practice of what happens at the school and by its staff,” the document alleges. “They stand around and watch abuse, and they don’t want to get involved. In the meanwhile, these children who cannot speak are left to suffer in silence.”

Originally, John and Dina Phipps filed their lawsuit in Clark County District Court, but it was moved to federal court in January 2013. Among the defendants is Detective Jeffery Schell.

The couple recently learned about a deposition given by Schell in another lawsuit against the school district.

Schell testified that he was investigating a report that teacher Lisa Smith had fed a glue stick to a student in July 2011 when he learned about allegations of abuse involving two other students.

One of those incidents involved an allegation that Smith had kicked a student in the chest during the 2010-2011 school year, causing him to fall backward and strike his head on a protruding wall outlet.

The other incident involved an allegation that Smith had grabbed the older Phipps boy by the collar of his shirt in May 2011 and lifted it upward as she escorted him to his seat. A witness said the boy “appeared to be in discomfort and pain while Smith was pulling on his collar,” the detective testified.

According to court records, Smith is 6 feet tall and weighs 200 pounds.

Schell’s deposition “seems to indicate a significant matter of abuse at Variety School, with knowledge by supervisory staff, and an absolute failure to tell the parents about such abuse,” according to the recent document in the Phipps case.

According to the document, John and Dina Phipps did not know about the allegation of abuse involving their older son until they were shown the deposition.

Their younger son was a 10-year-old student at the school when allegations of his abuse arose.

The couple filed an amended lawsuit in 2013 that accused school district authorities of allowing disabled students to remain in a dangerous situation with an abusive aide while they used hidden cameras to conduct an undercover operation.

Defendants in their lawsuit 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.

A preliminary hearing in the criminal case is scheduled for June 16 in Las Vegas Justice Court.

Instead of notifying parents of students in the class, the Phipps lawsuit 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 younger 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.”

Melinda Malone, a school district spokeswoman, said Smith and James “are both no longer employees of the district.” The spokeswoman declined to comment on any of the allegations raised in the two lawsuits.

“We can’t comment on pending litigation,” she said.

John and Dina Phipps are represented by attorneys J. Mitchell Cobeaga, Robert Murdock and Eckley Keach.

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

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