Mother sues school, town over paper towel incident

Groton - The mother of a former fourth-grade student at Northeast Academy is suing the Groton school district for allegedly allowing a teacher to humiliate and intimidate 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 the suit Aug. 27 in New London Superior Court on behalf of Gina Scumaci and her son. The suit names the teacher, Carole Van Erven, Northeast Academy Principal Paul Esposito, former schools Superintendent Paul Kadri, the Groton Board of Education and the Town of Groton as defendants.

Van Erven was placed on administrative leave last spring after the incident was investigated and now teaches at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Groton.

Interim Superintendent Sean McKenna, Esposito and Van Erven could not be reached for comment Friday. Floyd Dugas, lawyer for the school board, said he was not aware of the suit and could not comment. School board Chairwoman Kirsten Hoyt said the suit had just been received and she had not yet seen it so she could not comment. The Town Clerk's office received the complaint Wednesday afternoon.

According to the complaint, the teacher engaged in a punishment that humiliated the boy and other students from about Jan. 8, 2012, through Feb. 29, 2012. The suit alleges that the boy and other students were required to keep a "crumpled wad of paper towels inside their mouths for as long as she determined was necessary to publicly punish, ridicule and humiliate them in the presence of other students."

The suit alleges that on some occasions, the boy was "unable to swallow and was forced to stand in front of the class as drool poured from his mouth (and) onto his clothing and face in the presence of his peers, all to his great humiliation and degradation."

At the time of the investigation, Kadri said the teacher faced disciplinary action but was an "outstanding" teacher who had done "outstanding" things during a 20-year teaching career.

The suit charges the defendants with negligence, saying the boy suffered "great humiliation, substantial psychological trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder and assault and battery," as well as loss of self-esteem and loss of trust in authority.

The complaint further alleges that the district mishandled the investigation by questioning the children privately and then returning them to the classroom, where the teacher allegedly retaliated against.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages. It contends that the boy needed medical care, counseling and treatment, that his injuries likely are permanent, and that the mother will incur losses due to medical expenses and the cost to send her son to private or parochial school. The suit also seeks an injunction to prevent Van Erven from teaching in the Town of Groton.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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