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Wednesday, November 26,2008

Separation anxiety

by Neal McNamara

In March 2006, during a bus ride coming home from preschool in Holt, Tommy put his finger in Lisa’s vagina. He continued doing so for almost the entire 15-minute bus ride, even though Lisa kept insisting that Tommy stop. Lisa and Tommy were both 5 at the time and Lisa’s parents don’t know why Tommy chose their daughter and they don’t know how Tommy learned to do what he did.


After Lisa got home, she told her parents what had happened on the bus and they took her to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing to see a doctor. Soon after, Lisa’s parents requested that the Holt Public Schools keep Tommy and Lisa (not their real names) separated. They didn’t want the children to share the same classroom.


And for two years — through kindergarten and first grade — the school system complied. Lisa’s parents had to write a letter to the school each year, but administrators complied.

Until this year when the children began second grade. At the beginning of school this year, because Tommy’s mother had problems with her son’s original teacher, according to court documents, Tommy was switched into Lisa’s class.

Now, Lisa’s parents are suing Holt Public Schools to get Tommy switched into another Holt elementary school. (Tommy has for now been placed in a different classroom.)

But the school system and Tommy’s mother are pushing back. Lisa’s parents say that their daughter is a victim and shouldn’t have to switch schools and leave her friends if Tommy is allowed to stay. She has been deeply affected by the assault, her parents say, suffering chronic stomach aches and has even awakened at night asking for an invisible tormentor to “stop.”


“Psychologically, it’s taking a toll,” says Lisa’s father of his daughter’s being in the same class as Tommy, and further having to see the boy during lunch and recess. “She can’t handle it. She doesn’t have the time to heal and get away from it.”


But advocates for Tommy, including several of his teachers, have said in affidavits that transferring the boy to a new school would be traumatic for him. Tommy, who is said to suffer emotional problems, is bonded to his current teacher and school, teachers say.


“(Tommy) has struggled through a lot,” reads an affidavit. “He has forged strong bonds with his teachers.”

Affidavits filed by Holt school system attorneys say that Lisa is well adjusted and doesn’t appear to be suffering trauma related to the school bus incident.

The realization that Tommy and Lisa were in class together didn’t come until after the school year had begun. According to court records, Lisa came home from school on Sept. 26, a Friday, and told her mother that Tommy was in her class. Lisa’s father called the school’s principal, who agreed to separate the children. However, Tommy and his family were on vacation the week of Sept. 29. When Tommy returned on Oct. 6, Lisa’s parents told City Pulse in an interview, a school official told the girl’s parents that the children would not be separated immediately because the school did not want to ruin a special occasion for Tommy. (City Pulse is not disclosing the nature of the special occasion because it would identify Tommy.)


On Oct. 10, Lisa’s parents’ lawyers, Mick Grewal and Thomas Barger, filed for a 10-day temporary restraining order to keep Tommy out of school. After the restraining order’s expiration, Grewal and Barger filed suit to remove Tommy from Lisa’s school. The school system contested, and now the two sides are — in and out of court — trying to negotiate a settlement.

A hearing regarding the matter was held Nov. 19 at Ingham County Circuit Court, but no conclusion was reached. Barger says that a “skeleton” of a settlement was reached two weeks ago, but nothing has been finalized.

Holt Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Scott Szpara, also the district spokesman, will not answer any questions related to the matter because it’s in litigation. At last week’s hearing, Holt attorney Matt Vicari, of Grand Rapidsbased Miller Johnson, deferred comment to Szpara. Tommy’s mother’s attorney, Mason attorney Bill Noud, has not officially commented on the matter.

Szpara said that Holt does not have a policy for a situation in which a student is assaulted, sexually or otherwise. The school system takes each situation on a case-by-case basis, Szpara said. “When we deal with students, we deal with the facts,” Szpara said. “There’s no set way to deal with any one thing.”

However, part of what Lisa’s parents are seeking — in addition to the removal of Tommy from Lisa’s school — is a policy regarding the victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and their interaction.

“The schools have been taking a reactive approach as opposed to a proactive approach,” said Lisa’s mother.

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