Mother sues Grace Community School after 4-year-old claims abuse

Saturday, June 17, 2000
By RACHELLE BOTT, Staff Writer

Working parents need day care, but they don't want to leave their children with just anyone.

With a variety of centers out there to choose from - some not accredited - what better place to keep your child than one with a religious background?

That was what Maria Velarde said she was thinking two years ago when she enrolled her then-4-year-old son in Grace Community School on Outer Drive in East Naples. She said she thought a religiously affiliated school would be safe.

"I thought they were a religious school and they couldn't do wrong," Velarde said.

She now contends she was wrong.

She said her son soon started crying when Velarde drove him to school and that he lost weight. She said he started telling his mother about a teacher pulling his hair and lifting him by the shoulders.

Velarde is now suing Grace Community School, one of its teachers and its founder.

"It should have never happened to my child. I hope it doesn't happen to another," Velarde said recently.

This is the second formal complaint, in the form of a lawsuit, of abuse allegations against the school, according to the public relations firm hired by the school.

Velarde went to the Collier County Sheriff's Office, which referred her to the Department of Children & Families child protection team. No arrest was made; authorities said they are prohibited from discussing the matter.

There are nine Grace Community schools in Collier and Lee counties, including Fort Myers, Naples, East Naples, Golden Gate and Cape Coral. The religious-based school accepts children ages 6 months to 13 years and uses a head-on-the-desk approach to discipline, according to the school's rules.

The Rev. Ellsworth McIntyre - founder of the school - declined to comment on the suit, instead referring questions to his public relations firm, Wragg and Casas.

In a press release, McIntyre said: "Because this is an ongoing legal matter, I have been advised by my attorney not to comment on the lawsuit filed." He has said in the past that other abuse claims made against the school "have no merit to them."

Velarde's suit isn't the first to be filed against Grace Community Schools.

In 1996, six Cape Coral families claimed their children were being abused. The suit was settled out of court. The settlement was sealed and the Cape Coral school remains open.

There has only been one arrest made as a result of an allegation made by a parent. The Rev. Samuel Harrison - McIntyre's son-in-law - was charged in December with child abuse, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison if he is convicted.

His trial is scheduled for July 10.

Harrison is accused of grabbing a boy by the arm and dragging him to a table on the other side of the classroom after he noticed the boy playing with a Pokemon ball instead of reading his music lesson. Harrison then told the boy to put his head down.

Velarde contends in the suit that her son was abused at the school. Along with hair-pulling, the children are denied bathroom access - except at the designated times - and food, she contends.

"Every day when I would get my son, he would say: 'I'm thirsty. I'm hungry.' Not 'Hello, Mommy,' " Velarde said.

In her suit, Velarde contends her son was emotionally and physically abused by school employees by telling him 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."

The May 30 suit also contends there was hitting, scratching, pushing, forcing children to sit with their heads down on the table for extended periods of time and screaming at the child.

The family is seeking damages exceeding $15,000.

Doug Rankin, a Naples attorney and Grace Community School supporter, said punishment in the public schools is much harsher.

The parents making unsubstantiated claims are on a "witch hunt for monetary gain," Rankin said.

"Everyone thinks the court system is a lottery. It's a nice way to cash in," said Rankin, who has two children, ages 12 and 7, at the school.

Ted Zelman, who is representing Velarde, said a lawsuit is one of the few options for parents because an arrest is unlikely after an abuse investigation is completed.

Department of Children & Families officials say they have no regulation over Grace Community Schools, which has a religious exemption. If a complaint comes in on the abuse hotline, DCF investigators will go to the school to investigate the complaint.

If there is any finding, though, the report would be turned over to the Collier County Sheriff's Office, said Kathy Rushing, operating program administrator for the state agency.

Grace Community Schools are accredited by Nicene Schools International, a for-profit corporation of which McIntyre is a board member.

Velarde questions the quality of the education her son was receiving when there were 12-, 13- and 14-year-old girls teaching the pre-schoolers.

Rankin said all the teaching staff at Grace Community Schools is highly qualified.

 A Woman's Touch | Sharon Hanlon lends new dimensions to a law officeOther school supporters and McIntyre have said the lawsuits and abuse claims - along with Harrison's arrest - are just attacks on a religious-affiliated school.

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