Parents of special needs child speak out after reports of abuse by teacher

Parents of special needs child speak out after reports of abuse by teacher

GASTON COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - The parents of a special needs student in Gaston County turned to WBTV after being told by police their daughter had been assaulted on multiple occasions by her teacher.

Ben and Maria Payne say they were contacted in April by police, who were investigating reports that their daughter, Anna, had been assaulted by her special needs teacher at Kiser Elementary School in Stanley, NC, on at least two occasions.

It was the first time the couple had been told details of the alleged abuse. But, they say, they had noticed signs that things weren't right with their daughter months before. Their attempts to get answers from school staff, they said, had been unsuccessful.

"Anna started acting out, crying, not wanting to go to school, not letting us brush her hair, not letting us put it up, telling us she was scared," Maria Payne said.

Ben Payne said he and his wife could tell something was wrong but had no way of asking their daughter for details of what might have caused her change in mood and behavior.

"Anna's special. She can't really tell you, 'hey dad, I got hurt today,'" he said.

The couple says they asked the school for information but were told by staff they couldn't disclose any information because it was a personnel matter.

That changed when detectives came to the school as part of an investigation into reports that Anna's teacher, Virginia Pendergraft, had physically abused her.

"I don't know that they were going to report it to us had the detective not been there to interview the (teaching) assistants," Maria Payne said.

Specifically, an affidavit filed by a detective with the Stanley Police Department said two teacher's aides reported two instances of Pendergraft assaulting Anna.

The first time, the affidavit said, was in February.

"[The teachers aides] alleged student Anna Payne was assaulted by Pendergraft on 2/12/2018 by aggressively pulling Payne's head up off the desk by her ponytail," the affidavit said.

The affidavit said the Paynes were not notified of the incident until police asked for their contact information and the school's principal provided it "eventually, after multiple requests," according to the affidavit.

The affidavit said police were notified of a second assault on Anna that happened in late March by the school's principal on April 10.

According to the affidavit, the two teacher's aides witnessed Pendergraft "aggressively pulling Anna Payne off the wall during a time-out by the back of her shirt."

The affidavit notes that the Paynes had not immediately been told of the second incident, either.

Pendergraft's personnel records, obtained by WBTV through a records request, show she was suspended for one week in February following the first incident but then returned to work and continued teaching Anna.

The records show she was suspended a second time on April 9, and was allowed to resign at the end of the school year.

Ben and Maria Payne want to know why the school didn't do more to keep their daughter safe after the first incident.

Administrators with Gaston County Schools refused to explain why they didn't notify the Paynes but, through an attorney, issued the following statement that, in some cases, contradicts the sworn affidavit filed by the police detective:

Gaston County Schools is aware of an investigation involving an employee at Kiser Elementary School.  It is our practice, in the rare instance of a criminal investigation of an employee, to suspend the employee pending the outcome of the investigation.  Our review of this matter, including review by independent legal counsel, shows that school administration acted appropriately to address this matter, by first informing law enforcement upon learning of the facts and circumstances, and then immediately thereafter informing the parents of the affected student.  Any assertion that a matter of this nature was not immediately and appropriately reported is wholly inaccurate.  Gaston County Schools is committed to providing students with a safe environment and pursues student safety as its top priority.  Pending the outcome of the investigation, Gaston County Schools is prohibited from making any further comment on this matter.

In a phone call before the story was published by WBTV, Pendergraft told a reporter the abuse allegations were not true but declined to comment further.

This is at least the second time Gaston County school administrators have been accused by parents of failing to take appropriate action in response to allegations of a teacher abusing special needs students.

WBTV reported in March 2017 about a criminal investigation into Penny Barker, who was a teacher at McAdenville Elementary School.

Police began investigating Barker after the parent of a special needs student in Barker's class called police to report allegations she had learned from a teacher's aide in that class.

Like in the case of Anna Payne, school administrators had placed Barker on leave for a short period of time and then suspended her a second time when a criminal investigation was started.

Gaston County Schools still has not responded, a year-and-a-half later, to a public records request for documents that would detail how Barker's case was handled.

In the case of Anna Payne, her parents are now wondering if Pendergraft will face any consequences for what police say she did to their child.

The couple says District Attorney Locke Bell has said he will not press charges, despite the thorough police investigation, two eyewitnesses and purported video evidence obtained by police.

Bell did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment and hung up on a reporter who called seeking answers about why he has not filed charges in this case.

"It's sad," Maria Payne said. "It's very frustrating."

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