Tacoma teacher didn't notice sexual abuse among kindergarteners, suit says

A family has sued Tacoma Public Schools, a former kindergarten teacher, and the Grant Elementary School principal in Pierce County Superior Court. They allege a 5-year-old student was sexually abused by a classmate in 2014.
A family has sued Tacoma Public Schools, a former kindergarten teacher, and the Grant Elementary School principal in Pierce County Superior Court. They allege a 5-year-old student was sexually abused by a classmate in 2014. Thinkstockimages.com

A Tacoma family has sued a former kindergarten teacher, elementary school principal and the school district for allegedly failing to prevent sexual abuse among students.

The lawsuit alleges that a 5-year-old kindergartener was sexually abused by a classmate at Grant Elementary School in 2014. It also contends the teacher failed to notice, and that safety concerns about her classroom had been reported before.

The News Tribune is not naming the student or her mother, who brought the lawsuit on her behalf, because of the nature of the allegations.

Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district had no comment on the litigation, which was filed April 3 in Pierce County Superior Court.

The teacher, Sandra Holmes, was fired after the incident. She has denied wrongdoing, and argued in U.S. District Court that she was wrongfully terminated. A judge dismissed her complaint, and she has appealed that decision.

"Sandra Holmes had created an environment where aggressive kindergarten children were sexually abusing other children in the classroom on a chronic and repetitive basis," Darrell Cochran, one of the attorneys representing the student, told The News Tribune. "... For months, teachers had petitioned the principal, Steve Holmes, and the district to remove Sandra Holmes as a teacher."

Holmes had been a teacher for 42 years, and worked in Tacoma since 2006.

During her court fight over her firing, she said of her students in a 2014 statement to The News Tribune that she had never “failed to do what is necessary to ensure their physical and mental health and well-being while they are in my care during the school day.”

Holmes believed the allegations that led to her termination largely were based on the fact that she is black. In her statement, she noted: “There are only a handful of people of color at Grant Elementary School."

The recent lawsuit gives this account of the alleged trouble in her classroom at the school, which also is known as Grant Center for the Expressive Arts:

Principal Holmes, who is not related to the teacher, got about 60 complaints about the educator in a two-month period.

While he became concerned about the teacher, the lawsuit states, "he failed to replace Sandra Holmes or to provide additional oversight or assistance to ensure proper conduct, control and supervision for the students in the class.”

He wrote her on Jan. 16, 2014, about her unprofessional conduct, such as letting kindergarteners answer the classroom phone, leaving a unknown parent to watch her class, releasing students to adults who weren’t on their approved list, not knowing students’ first and last names, leaving a student in timeout for 90 minutes and grabbing students by the arm and one by the shirt to get them to line up.

The letter directed her not to do those things, and to follow district policies.

On Jan. 23, 2014, a parent who had not met Holmes before found her class unsupervised, and watched the students until Holmes returned. When she got back, she asked the parent to watch the class while she went to lunch.

A week later, Holmes allegedly didn’t notice that one of her students had stayed in the classroom during a fire drill.

And that same month, the mother of a 5-year-old girl who is not part of a lawsuit emailed the teacher to ask that her daughter be put in a different class. A boy had asked to touch the girl inappropriately at school that day, and the same boy had inappropriately touched the girl earlier in the school year, the mother wrote.

The teacher allegedly informed the principal of what the mother had said, but did not report it to police or Child Protective Services, which the lawsuit argues violated school district policy.

On Feb. 5, 2014, the girl who is the subject of the lawsuit was without pants or underwear at recess.

Another staff member told Holmes about this, who said it was not the first time the girl had been found without her clothes, and that Holmes hoped it would stop.

She didn’t report the behavior to Child Protective Services, to police or to the principal.

Two days later the girl’s mother saw her daughter’s pants were undone and her hair was disheveled after school.

The child said that a boy "crawled under a table during class, removed her pants, and orally copulated her private parts,” the lawsuit states.

The mother called principal Holmes, who called police.

That was the first the principal had heard that there was a sexually aggressive boy in the class, the district said in an answer to the complaint, filed with the court.

District records show that Superintendent Carla Santorno wrote teacher Holmes on May 13 that she was being fired, in part because her lax supervision of the class resulted in sexual activity among students, which she failed to report to police or Child Protective Services.

Santorno also wrote that a parent volunteer had found several unidentified pills in a classroom bead tray.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell