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Parents of special needs children sue principal, school district for ‘bullying’ and ‘willful disregard for safety’

The parents in the lawsuit want damages for “mental anguish, pain, and suffering.”

COWETA COUNTY, Ga. — A group of parents filed a lawsuit against the Coweta County School District and the principal of Elm Street Elementary over a failure to report the alleged abuse.

The four parents, identified by their initials in the lawsuit, want damages for “mental anguish, pain, and suffering.”

The lawsuit, filed at the end of 2021, alleges a paraprofessional witnessed a teacher slap one of her special needs students and hit the child with a pencil in October of 2019.

A few weeks later, the paraprofessional witnessed the teacher grabbing a child by the jacket hood.

In December of 2019, the lawsuit reads that the teacher allegedly grabbed a child by the neck and moved her head back and forth aggressively. It also claims the teacher struck other students.

Parents said in the lawsuit, the paraprofessional notified the principal, Christi Hildebrand, on five different occasions in December about the alleged abuse. Georgia law requires school officials and employees to report suspected abuse within 24 hours.

The lawsuit states the last time the paraprofessional notified Hildebrand was December 16. Hildebrand reported the accusations on December 18.

From there, a series of investigations and board meetings addressed the accusations and the failure to immediately report the alleged abuse.

One of the plaintiffs, Jillian Wooten, said her son, age 12 at the time, was one of the victims. In 2020, Wooten told 11Alive, “None of us parents were told there were abuse allegations, just problems with discipline. From day one, this wasn't taken seriously enough, from day one, the image of this school has been what's important.”

In the end, Hildebrand was punished, with the Coweta County District Attorney agreeing to a pre-trial diversion, 80 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. Hildebrand was also suspended for two days without pay and required to take mandatory reporting law training.

It was a punishment Wooten didn’t feel was sufficient, saying at the time. “I understand people make mistakes, and everyone should be allowed some form of grace, a second chance. But this wasn't a simple mistake. This was multiple occasions, where you could have done the right thing.”

Hildebrand was also reprimanded by the Georgia Professional Standards Council for failure to report the abuse.

The accused teacher was placed on administrative leave. Her contract was not renewed and she's currently awaiting a hearing with the Georgia Professional Standards Council.

The lawsuit accuses Coweta County School District – through its employment of the teacher – of bullying, harassing, assaulting and battering the special needs children. Hildebrand is accused of not taking action to stop alleged abuse and for failure to report.  

“It was foreseeable that Defendant Hildebrand’s failure to promptly and thoroughly investigate and report allegations of child abuse by one of the school’s employees could result in students suffering physical harm and mental anguish. Defendant Hildebrand’s actions constituted a willful disregard for the safety and well-being of Plaintiffs and other special needs students at Elm Street Elementary,” the lawsuit reads.

The defendants are accused of violating the student’s constitutional rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A spokesperson for the school district responded to the lawsuit in a statement, “This matter, which arose in 2019, was thoroughly investigated by the school system, the Newnan Police Department, the Coweta County District Attorney's Office and the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. Beyond that, I cannot comment on pending litigation.”

The lawsuit seeks to find the defendants liable, award the plaintiffs special damages in the amount of $100,000 and additional damages of mental anguish, pain, and suffering.

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