Lawsuits against church school teacher accused of child abuse move forward

Naples Daily News


Saturday, March 3, 2001

By CHRIS W. COLBY

As the child abuse charge against a teacher at an East Naples religious school moves toward a trial date, a civil lawsuit also alleging child abuse by the teacher inches along as well.

The parents of a 4-year-old student allege the Rev. Samuel Harrison abused the boy, according to the civil suit they filed in Collier County Circuit Court. The suit also faults the school where Harrison teaches, Grace Community School of East Naples, its director, the Rev. Ellsworth McIntyre, and Grace Community Church of Naples.

The Rev. Samuel Harrison

Naples attorney Sharon Hanlon, who is representing the parents, Enrique and Maria Velarde, said little has happened since the suit was filed in June 2000. A hearing was scheduled for Feb. 26 before Circuit Judge Ted Brousseau for the two sides to discuss paperwork Hanlon has requested.

That paperwork includes the school's policy on corporal punishment.

"We have survived various motions against us, motions to dismiss, and we're in the very early states of taking depositions," Hanlon said. "We haven't taken depositions of any big players yet."

The suit alleges abuse by Harrison, including hitting, scratching, and punching the child, forcing him to sit with his head down on a table for long periods of time, refusing to allow him to use the bathroom, and withholding adequate food and drink. It also alleges verbal abuse and emotional abuse by forcing him to watch other children being harmed.

Maria Velarde has said her son would cry when she drove him to school, and he had lost weight. She said he told her about a teacher pulling his hair and lifting him by the shoulders.

Hanlon wouldn't detail the arguments she will make or further discuss the allegations.

"Because they are the subject of the depositions, I can't comment on them yet," she said.

In the criminal case, Harrison is charged with a felony count of child abuse of a different student. He has had several trial dates that have been postponed because of various legally maneuvering by his attorney, Clark Mervis of Miami. Harrison is scheduled for trial March 22 in circuit court.

According to court records, on Oct. 14, 1999, the child was playing a Pokemon game in violation of school rules and was talking during class. Harrison told the kid to stop, but he didn't, so the teacher yanked him off his chair and pulled him across the room by the arm, leaving a bruise. No medical treatment was required.

The lead attorney in the civil case, Peter Miller, a Coral Gables attorney who is representing McIntyre and the school, wouldn't comment on the case. However, he did explain the meaning of a section in a court document that alleged the parents failed to obtain timely medical and psychological treatment for the boy, causing or worsening any injuries.

"If in fact this boy needed medical or psychological treatment, he didn't get it," Miller said.

He argued the defendants shouldn't be held responsible because of that. Also, court records Miller filed deny the school or McIntyre knew about or had any role in injuries the student suffered.

Mervis, who is also representing Harrison in the civil suit, declined to comment on specifics of the case, other than to say Harrison denies harming the child. In a court document filed by Mervis on Harrison's behalf, he made a very similar argument to one he made in the criminal case attempting to get the charge dismissed in January.

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

Harrison denies hurting either child, but under his argument, even if he did use force to discipline the child, he was allowed to do so.

"In my opinion, a teacher in his position has a right to use non-excessive, moderate corporal punishment in the classroom, even if that rises to the level of a simple battery under Florida law, as long as it's for educational purposes and it isn't malicious," Mervis said.

Assistant State Attorney Steve Maresca, who is prosecuting the criminal case, has argued Harrison didn't have the necessary parental permission or the school's blessing to use corporal punishment. And the civil lawsuit states that the Velarde family was told by Grace Community staff members that the school's disciplinary policy strictly forbade corporal punishment.

Circuit Judge William Blackwell didn't agree with Mervis' argument and refused to dismiss the charge against Harrison.

The criminal charge against Harrison is a felony that carries up to five years in prison, although Harrison, who is still a teacher at the school, would be eligible for less than a year in jail if convicted.

The civil suit doesn't specify an exact amount of money Velarde is seeking.

One of the co-defendants, Nicene Schools International, was successful in having itself removed from the suit. Hanlon said it was an accrediting agency for Grace Community Schools that had no knowledge of or liability for what happens inside the schools.

But J. Lane Middleton, a Miami attorney representing Nicene, said the agency was removed because the lawsuit was alleging "educational malpractice," which isn't recognized by Florida law as a valid cause of action for a civil suit.

Zelman & Hanlon, P.A. Florida Legal Elite 2013 ABA American Bar Association