Looking for Answers
A Warwick couple who say their 4th-grade daughter was the object of sexually explicit remarks and inappropriate touching by a male classmates with special needs at her elementary school is speaking out about how the School Department has handled their situation - wanting to know why officials are not doing more to protect their daughter and other children. With state law protecting student confidentiality, the answers for them - and for us - have been hard to come by.
For half a century Norwood Elementary has been a fixture for families in the northern end of Warwick. And it’s where Jessica Moone has spent countless hours volunteering while her two
Jessica: I was the vice president of the PTA. Room parent every year for eight year. I spent hundreds of hours a year.’’
All of that changed for Guy and Jessica Moone two and a half months ago when their younger daughter came home from her 4th-grade class with something to tell her parents.
Jessica: ``On March 31st he grabbed our daughter.’’
Guy: ``And her friend.’’
Jessica: ``And her friend.’’
Hummel: ``Grabbed her where?’’
Jessica: ``In her behind, but it went kind of underneath. He touched more than just her behind.’’
The Moones say a boy with special needs also made sexually explicit comments to their daughter. And it wasn’t the first time. Jessica recalled a conversation she had two years ago.
Jessica: ``In second grade, the second-grade teacher at the end of the day asked me if she could speak to me, because the lunch aid had heard that particular student saying to my daughter: `Do you know what a penis is? Would you like to see my penis?’”
Hummel: ``In 2nd grade?’’
Jessica: ``In 2nd grade, and sang a song about it to my daughter.’’
Jessica Moone says the boy and her daughter were in different classes last year without incident, but problems began again this past academic year. She says she heard about the latest incident from their daughter, and immediately contacted the principal, John Gannon.’’
Jessica: ``The only information he would be able to give me over the phone was that she was touched. He wouldn’t be able to say where, he wouldn’t be able to say by who. He wouldn’t be able to say anything except she was touched, at recess and I have a report of it.’’
State law protects the confidentiality of students, and also requires the public school system to educate all students regardless of their special needs. And that means there were many answers we could not get from the School Department about the Moones’ situation.
We do know that after the March 31st incident, Principal Gannon drafted a detailed safety plan to keep the two students apart after a meeting at the school the next day that included Lynn Dambruch, the director of elementary education for the department
Guy: ``Miss Dambruch had assured us there’ll be severe consequences to this and she went on about there would be punishments and we talked about the other children that were involved, that had been involved months prior.’’
Hummel: ``And they acknowledged…did they acknowledge?’’
Jessica: ``Mr. Gannon acknowledged, Miss Dambruch looked at him….’’
Guy: ``…and said: `Are there others?’”
Jessica: ``Well, her reaction was `I don’t know anything about that.’ And he said. `That, that was about a month ago, or so, I can tell you about that…’ So, in other words, when we’re not in the room he’ll talk to her about that.’’
The Moones say even with the safety plan there was another incident at a school assembly.
Guy: ``A week later, my daughter comes home mortified. She was sat three seats from this child, where he’s supposed to have an aide with him, a 1- on-1, her teacher knew the situation, the other 4th grade teacher knew the situation. John Gannon assured my daughter she’d be checked on multiple times a day to make sure she was comfortable.’’
That’s when Guy Moone went into action - going to Kent County Family Court to take out a temporary restraining order against the boy and calling Principal Gannon, Superintendent Philip Thornton and Lynn Damburch.
Guy: ``With all that’s going on, they had the audacity to sit him three seats away. Absolutely, completely 100 thousand percent unacceptable.’’
Dambruch: ``I agree. I did plan a meeting with the school team to come up with environmental modifications and that was one of the things that never was your daughter to be sitting near him and I respect you being an advocate for her and I don’t want your daughter to feel uncomfortable. ‘’
Guy: ``Well my daughter just came home and told me she doesn’t want to go to school no more. This is my life. My daughter is my life. My oldest daughter is my life.’’
Guy: ``They apologized. They tell me they have daughters. It’s pretty much all I got.’’
Jessica: ``They’ll speak to the teachers, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But at that point it was too late, she didn’t want to go back to school anymore. She was scared to death to go back to school.’’
Guy: ``Now here comes the following week, every day crying, every morning crying I don’t want to go to school.’’
Dambruch: ``We are a public school system and every student has a right to attend. We need to make it a safe environment, I agree, that’s our responsibility and we want to put some things in place and also to support the other student too so he doesn’t do this again.’’
Guy: ``Yeah, well it all seems to be supporting him and my daughter’s getting ruined.’’
Dambruch: ``There has been some consequences but I can’t discuss them with you, but there has been some steps taken and I know Dr. Thornton shared this with you too, we just can’t discuss that with you.’’
Guy: ``It’s not like he just pinched her. He grabbed her behind. ‘’
Dambruch: ``Which is an unacceptable behavior, right? And we are taking steps to change behavior, to work with the student.’’
Guy: ``This has been going on for years, what are you going to change? Second grade he sang a song about his penis to her. What more needs to be done?’’
In a conversation with Thornton, Moone asked about punishment.
Thornton: `` As far as punishing it goes back to: does the behavior a kid will do, is it related to anything about how he’s made up, his makeup and that’s part of the law too.’’
Guy: ``There needs to be a discipline, there has to be.’’
Thornton: ``Yup, all of those things are not as clear-cut as you would think. There are all kinds of laws and regulations on that.’’
Jessica: ``She was asking us to home school her, she was asking us to change her to a new school and the biggest thing for us was we didn’t want her to miss too much time.’’
So the Moones, after eight years invested in Norwood, asked for a transfer to Holliman Elementary, a mile away on the other side of Post Road. The department immediately granted the request.
Jessica Moone said she had not talked about the situation beyond close family and friends, but decided to go public after her husband went back to court for a hearing on the restraining order a couple of weeks later.
Guy: ``I felt kind of bamboozled. I show up, the school department decides to send their special education attorney. The mother had her own private attorney, which I kind of figured. I didn’t expect the School Department to send an attorney on behalf of…’’
Jessica: ``The assailant.’’
Guy: ``The guy who touched my daughter And they also sent a special needs teacher in support of this family. So as I’m trying to tell Judge DiSegna I had to move my child, this is the fourth child that he’s touched, they’re not doing nothing about it, I had to remove my child from the school, John Anderson, who’s the attorney says: ``There’s no other kids that this happened to.’’
Jessica: ``There’s no record of any other children being touched.’’
Hummel: ``What did you think when he said that?’’
Guy: ``I was sick.’’
Jessica: ``It was the fact they sent them, it was like a slap in the face; here’s our child: the victim. And they’re helping the person who did this to her. And to me, as I said, all those hours I spent at the school, I don’t expect my children to get special treatment, but I definitely don’t expect somebody else’s child to get special treatment when my child is the victim.’’
Guy Moone voluntarily withdrew his request for a permanent restraining order at the suggestion of the judge, who noted the Moones’ daughter was now in another school. On May 1st he received an email from Dambruch saying ``Mr. Gannon and the Warwick School Department have carefully investigated all of your complaints and have not found evidence that supported your claims that your daughter was inappropriately touched at Norwood School.’’
Dambruch noted that the department granted the transfer request to Holliman.
That Jessica Moone reported their daughter was happy.
And that Guy Moone voluntarily withdrew his complaint at family Court.
Dambruch went on to say: This is my final communication with you regarding this matter. I am more than happy to assist you in the future on other matters.’’
Superintendent Thornton tells The Hummel Report that while he personally did not conduct the investigation - which includes a statement from the Moones’ daughter and others at Norwood Elementary - he agrees with and supports Dambruch’s findings. And that he couldn’t give us any more details.
The Moones say even if you take the special needs and sexual aspect of the incidents out of consideration, the behavior is clearly bullying.
Jessica: ``My daughter is afraid to go to school, how much more bullying can it get? Intimidation is one of the things that has to do with bullying and she was absolutely intimidated. She was afraid of what else may happened to her.’’
In Warwick, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.