By Heather Mullinix
A family has filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Cumberland County Board of Education and several individuals after they claimed their second-grade child was handcuffed for the better part of an hour while attending the Phoenix School.
Named in the suit are the Cumberland County Board of Education doing business as South Cumberland Elementary and the Phoenix School; Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle; Keena Inman, 504 coordinator for the school system; South Cumberland Principal Darrell Threet; Becky Brown, 504 coordinator for South Cumberland Elementary; Eddie Nunley, principal of the Phoenix School; and School Resource Officer John Tollett.
According to the suit, Gregory Hoskins and Camie Hoskins allege their child was subjected to assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unconstitutional seizure and general negligence by the defendants. Their son enrolled in South Cumberland Elementary in August 2008 in the pre-kindergarten program and suffered intermittent behavioral problems. He was withdrawn from the school until the next year and later diagnosed with separation anxiety. In August 2009, he was re-enrolled in South Cumberland Elementary to begin kindergarten. After a round of antibiotics to treat an ear infection, the family noticed the separation anxiety worsened and their son had experienced a rare side effect to the drug.
The suit states school officials were aware of the student's condition and the Hoskins continually asked for assistance in getting their son to class and to help him enjoy school.
"The only solution school officials ever gave to Plaintiffs Greg and Camie Hoskins was 'just get him in the building and we will do the rest,'" the suit states. The parents claim that included physically dragging the child to his classroom and having Threet sit in the classroom and watch him to prevent outbursts.
During first grade, the child's behavioral problems became so severe he was placed on homebound learning from November 2010 through January 2011. He was later diagnosed with a mood disorder in February 2011.
The student returned to South Cumberland for the 2011-'12 school year. On Feb. 28, 2012, the Hoskins say they were told their son would have to attend the Phoenix School for three days after he did not want to go to his classroom and was swinging at a teacher.
Policy 6.319 of the Cumberland County Board of Education states the alternative school program is for students in grades 7 through 12 who have been suspended or expelled from regular school programs. The Hoskins' son was in the second grade and attending the alternative school was against board policy, the suit states.
On March 1, the student became frustrated in the physical education class because he could not do as many repetitions of the exercise as the older students and refused to continue. The suit states the teacher of the class said he had to continue and the student reacted by saying, "Leave me alone."
At that point, the suit claims the teacher called Phoenix School Principal Eddie Nunley, who also told the student to continue the exercise. Upon the student's refusal, Nunley reportedly called for School Resource Officer John Tollett and asked him to take the student to his office. Tollett reportedly handcuffed the student's hands behind his back and told him to sit in a chair in the corner of the office.
The parents were called and met with Nunley and Tollett for about 40 minutes, during which time they say their son remained handcuffed.
It was also during this meeting the parents say they were first told of a "Section 504 plan" provided for in the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 that prohibits discrimination based upon disability and requires the needs of students with disabilities to be met as adequately as the needs of the non-disabled are met. The impairment may be any disability, long-term illness or disorder that "substantially" reduces or lessons a student's ability to access learning because of a learning-, behavior- or health-related condition.
The suit claims the student was denied rights guaranteed under the Americans With Disabilities Act, that their son suffered physical and emotional injuries, that the punishment by handcuffing was done with malice and intent to punish and scare the student and was an inhumane abuse of official power, and that the student's right to substantive due process and protection against illegal seizure were violated. The suit also claims defendants were negligent because they had a duty to ensure the student's safety.
The suit seeks damages of not more than $500,000 and punitive damages of not more than $500,000. It also seeks an injunction to preclude the defendants from engaging in the conduct outlined in the case in the future and to provide policy, training and supervision of employees and to hold them accountable for misconduct.
The suit also seeks payment of attorney fees.
The suit was filed March 1, 2013, by attorneys Richard M. Brooks of Carthage and Walter Alan Rose of Crossville.