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Parents criticize discipline at Montessori school

Lawsuit settlement brings $5,000 and apology

Express Staff Writer

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Pioneer Montessori School, who alleged that a teacher physically abused a 4-year-old student there, say they are unsatisfied with disciplinary guidelines enacted at the school as part of a settlement of their claim.

The incident, which occurred at the Ketchum school in January 1999, resulted in the resignation of a teacher’s aide who witnessed it and of a board member who objected to the school’s handling of it. A Ketchum Police Department investigation produced statements by two other parents who alleged children having been disciplined by physical means at the school, but did not result in criminal charges.

The Pioneer Montessori School is primarily a pre-school for children ages 3 to 6, but has recently added a toddler program and the beginnings of an elementary school. It has about 80 students.

Dr. Randy and Teresa Coriell filed the suit two years ago on behalf of their son, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It alleged that then-headmaster and teacher Thomas Smith disciplined the child by forcing him onto his back on a table and holding his hand over the child’s mouth. The complaint stated that the act "mentally and physically terrorized and harmed plaintiff at that time, leaving bruises on his face."

The suit was dismissed in early September following a settlement under which the school was to pay the Coriells $5,000 and adopt disciplinary guidelines for teachers there. A copy of those guidelines was to be given to the Coriells. In addition, Smith agreed to apologize to the Coriells’ son and the school’s board of directors agreed to hear the Coriells’ complaints and suggestions.

In an interview, Randy Coriell said the disciplinary procedures the school reported it had adopted are contained in its 2000-2001 staff and parent handbooks. The handbooks state that "reasonable physical assistance" will be given to a child when needed and that disciplinary measures should reflect an attitude of "nurturing and sensitivity." The parents’ handbook sets out a procedure parents are to follow when making complaints; failure to follow the procedure can result in dismissal of the child from school.

"What they wrote it as was to protect the school," Coriell contended. "It doesn’t seem to have many guarantees for children’s safety."

In a printed statement distributed by its attorney, Rand Peebles, the school stated that "(T)he board of directors is pleased this matter has been resolved in this manner and hereby reaffirms that at all times throughout the incident which gave rise to the lawsuit the Montessori School, and particularly, Thomas Smith, acted prudently, appropriately and in the best interest of the health, safety and welfare of all concerned."

In an affidavit contained in the court file, Smith stated that at the time of the incident, he had been told by Gwen Smith, his wife and a teacher at the school, that the Coriells’ child "had physically struck another student, was verbally threatening other children and adults, and that Gwen Smith was unable to control him."

Thomas Smith further stated that he removed the child from the classroom to get him away from other students.

"I assisted in restraining plaintiff’s violent physical outbursts to prevent further injury to other children and possibly himself," Smith stated. "I also attempted to restrain plaintiff’s verbal outbursts and obscenities, made while in my presence in the coatroom, to prevent other children from hearing and being frightened by these statements."

In a deposition included in the court file, Bege Reynolds, a teacher’s aide for Gwen Smith, also said the Coriell child was out of control. However, she said she did not approve of the means by which Smith had disciplined him. She said she saw Smith hold his hand over the child’s mouth for a minute or two, though his hand did not appear to be covering the child’s nose.

In a letter to board members, dated July 12, 1999, Reynolds said she had resigned on May 21 after being told that the Smiths would not work with her the next year. She stated the Smiths had told her they couldn’t trust her after she sent a letter to the Coriells confirming their son’s version of the incident. In a recent interview, Reynolds said she wrote the letter with Gwen Smith’s permission after Gwen Smith told her she was not going to respond to the Coriells’ inquiry about the incident.

Board member Georgia Hutchinson stated in an affidavit that she, too, had resigned after it became clear she would be dismissed from her position due to disagreements over the Coriell incident.

"I felt that the board, during my tenure, had not exercised good faith in investigating nor disseminating to parents what had occurred. To the contrary I was under the impression that the board’s actions were to effectively cover up the questionable conduct of Thomas Smith on January 7, 1999," she stated.

In a recent interview, Hutchinson said the lawsuit could probably have been avoided if the school had been more open about the incident from the start.

"If there had just been better communication by everyone, if Bege had just been listened to, if the Coriells had just been listened to, it would have been better for the Coriells’ son and it would have been better for the school," she said.

In March 1999, the Ketchum Police Department investigated allegations of physical abuse of children at the Montessori school after receiving a complaint from the Coriells.

In allegations contained in a statement to Ketchum Police Investigator Lee Edgerton, one parent said that her son, who had graduated from the pre-school in 1996, told her "of times when Thomas (Smith) would forcibly grab him by the shirt and drag him across the room. She recalls that she had noticed bruises on (her son’s) back and neck during this time frame." The parent said she wrote a letter to the school’s board of directors telling them about the alleged abuse, but received no response.

In another allegation investigated by Edgerton, a parent said her son had reported that Smith had "picked him up by the back of the collar and threw him in the fireplace (non-working). (Her son) related to her that he was ‘airborne.’ She asked (her son) why he had not told her about the incident before. (Her son) told her that ‘Thomas told me not to tell and besides he is always yelling at me anyway.’"

Smith did not return a phone call to him at the school seeking comment on the parents’ allegations.

In an interview, City Prosecuting Attorney Rick Allington said he received the results of the Ketchum police investigation, but concluded that Smith’s alleged actions did not constitute criminal behavior.

"I thought it was more a disciplinary matter that the board should take up," he said. In a June 1999 letter to the Coriells, Coleen Kassner, president of the school’s board of directors, stated that an investigation conducted by the board had concluded that Smith’s actions were "not inappropriate" and that the board had discerned "no pattern of physical abuse or intimidation." According to school administrator Tom Downey, Smith is now running the school’s elementary program.

Under Idaho law, student discipline guidelines for public schools are to be determined by each school district. Guidelines enacted by the Blaine County School District for the county’s public schools state that "(a)ll district personnel will be expected to maintain discipline by means other than the use of physical punishment. Reasonable physical force may be utilized by a staff member in self-defense or to protect other personnel or a student from possible injury."

At the request of the Coriells, Idaho Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, is looking into the possibility of proposing legislation to set disciplinary standards for private schools. However, she said, in a state that tends to shun regulation, such a measure would likely be hard to get passed.

"I’m just researching it right now," she said.

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