Lawsuit looms in Groton case where schoolchild had towel stuck in mouth

Groton - The mother of a fourth-grade student at Northeast Academy Elementary School is suing the child's teacher for allegedly bullying her son by making him stuff a paper towel in his mouth to keep him from talking.

Attorney James A. Hall IV of Pawcatuck filed a letter of intent to sue April 10. The letter names the teacher, Carole Van Erven, Superintendent of Schools Paul J. Kadri, and the principal and vice principal of the school.

Hall contends the student and others suffered injuries caused by negligence and carelessness when Van Erven violated the law and policies "by using her position of power and authority ... to repeatedly bully students by ordering (them) to hold the paper towels in their mouths to publicly punish, ridicule and humiliate the student in the presence of the other students."

Hall said Van Erven also told at least one student that telling anyone or complaining about the incident could result in suspension.

Hall said the school administration was also irresponsible in the course of investigating the incident. Hall said the investigation took place, in part, during the school day while students and Van Erven were in the classroom. He said students were taken from the classroom and questioned. Upon their return to the class, he said, Van Erven asked them what questions were asked and how they answered.

Hall also contends that his clients were damaged by Kadri's version of events, which Hall described as a "public campaign to restate and distort the facts ... to protect Van Erven and the board of education."

He alleged that the administration, including Kadri, "publicly began asserting that the paper towels were placed between the students lips like a duck bill rather than crumpled into a wad and put into the students' mouths."

In a March 20 letter to parents of the students who were not subjected to the paper towels, Principal Paul Esposito said the children were "asked to put a crumpled up paper towel in their mouth and keep it there for five minutes." Esposito called the incident "unfortunate" and "regrettable."

Van Erven, a 20-year-teacher at the Mystic elementary school, was put on administrative leave when the incident came to light last month. Kadri said the teacher was facing disciplinary action but declined to elaborate on the details of that action, calling it a personnel matter.

Kadri said Van Erven used poor judgment but is an "outstanding" teacher who has done "outstanding" things throughout her teaching career. Kadri said Van Erven had apologized to the students.

c.potter@theday.com

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