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Two More Lawsuits Alleging Child Abuse Filed Against Religious School

Naples Daily News


Tuesday, March 25, 2003

By CHRIS W. COLBY

Two more lawsuits alleging child abuse by teachers at an East Naples religious school have been filed by parents of former pupils who say their children will need continued medical treatment, including psychotherapy, as a result of injuries they suffered.

The two civil suits, filed March 10 and March 17, bring the total to six complaints filed in Collier County Circuit Court against Grace Community School of Naples. The ages of the children involved range from younger than 2 to 6 years old.

The four prior suits, filed in 2000 and 2001, remain pending against the school, at 4405 Outer Drive and operated through Grace Community Church.

"They're similar allegations," said Ted Zelman, the attorney for the plaintiffs in all the suits. "They all occurred at the same school and during the same general time frame."

The two newest suits also follow the past suits by naming the Rev. Samuel Harrison, a teacher, and the Rev. Ellsworth McIntyre, the director, as defendants. The latest suits are also filed against Dennis Slack, a teacher at the school. Also named in a prior suit is teacher Esther Slack.

Harrison has also been arrested and charged with child abuse related to his activities as a teacher. He entered a pretrial counseling program and had the charge dismissed, prosecutors said.

In the past, the defendants and their attorneys have denied any abuse or wrongdoing. Their attorneys, Peter Miller and Mel Black in Miami, were unavailable for comment.

Both of the new lawsuits say the students, Brandon K. Jennings and Kyle Kiley, suffered assault and battery at the hands of Harrison and Slack for almost a year, beginning in fall 1999. The parents removed their children from the school.

The suits allege the teachers:

Hit, scratched, punched, pinched, pushed, and grabbed the children;

Made them watch as other children were abused;

Informed each child that "if he misbehaved, he would go to hell, and that his parents would not love him and he would be punished in the eyes of the church";

Refused the child access to toilet facilities and adequate food and drink;

Screamed at the children, pulled their hair, forced food in their mouth, heaved students out of a chair by the collar, and spanked them despite the defendants' claim of a policy forbidding corporal punishment.

"There were general allegations that one of the ways they disciplined the children was to make them put their head on a table for extended periods of time," Zelman said. "In one case, they forced a girl's head down, causing her tooth to go through her lip."

In addition to suing on grounds that an assault and battery occurred, the suit alleges negligence by the church and McIntyre for failing to oversee the school, monitor the actions of its teachers, or appropriately investigate allegations of abuse of students.

None of the suits specify an amount of money the parents seek. Zelman said many of the parents he represents remain angry at the school.

"There's anger, there's bitterness, there are the things you'd expert from victims of abuse. They feel like they're on trial," Zelman said.

The three prior suits have survived several defense attacks requesting dismissal. Each side has spent months taking depositions. That process is continuing, Zelman said Friday.

Harrison's former attorney, Clark Mervis of Miami, made several arguments defending him against the allegations in court documents filed as responses to the civil suit and the criminal case.

Mervis had argued the law allows parents, or those recognized by law to act as a parent, such as a teacher, to discipline students in a way that would constitute battery or even child abuse as long as the corporal punishment is an attempt to discipline the child.

"Our position is a teacher has some rights to use corporal punishment as a parent would, and as long as it's not excessive or done for malicious purposes, it does not constitute child abuse," Mervis has said.

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