LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Trust betrayed, families brokenhearted, oversight botched in a case involving special needs students who were physically abused by a teaching assistant. Contact 13 investigates a series of failures that left vulnerable children in an environment of ongoing abuse.
The sounds of silence accompany a studious homework atmosphere for Javis and his family. But at school, the silence of staff members masked something sinister for the 8-year-old special needs student.
“My teacher,” he said. “She’d be getting mad at us. And then she would try to smack us.”
Javis mumbles and talks into his fist as he recounts the pain he endured in third grade at the hands of the woman he knew as Ms. Joy, a special programs teaching assistant who’d worked at his school for three years.
“When she be with us at lunch, she pushed me down to the floor,” he said.
Hard to believe, but in August, Lajoy Schwenke pleaded guilty to hurting Javis and two other special needs students in his class at Helen Herr Elementary.
“I feel like I didn’t protect my grandson in enough time. I was let down,” Bridgette Baysinger said, getting emotional, “and I don’t want him to feel that he can’t trust the school or the people there.”
A pattern of ongoing abuse
On December 6, 2017, school police discovered a pattern of ongoing verbal and physical abuse by Schwenke. Officers interviewed five Helen Herr staff members who witnessed the abuse over several months.
“It was covered up!” Baysinger said. “I mean the report says it all.”
On various days from October through December, the police report says Schwenke was “cussing and screaming at the students” in her special needs class. On one day, she threw Javis to the ground and dragged him across the blacktop.
On another, she “threw her school work keys at Javis as he was entering the classroom” and said, “she wished she had hit him” and would have “if she had been faster.”
She reportedly threatened all her students that “if they came up on her they would receive an elbow in the face.” And she told another staff member not to leave the students with her “because she will choke them out.”
“No one had said or done anything,” Baysinger said.
Not until the day police were finally called when Schwenke “hit Javis over the head with a book” and later grabbed him “causing him to fall to the ground and hit his head on a wet floor sign” in the cafeteria. School surveillance cameras captured the incident. The district refused to release the video to us.
“It was no way that it could be hid anymore,” Baysinger said.
That morning when Schwenke went to work, she’s quoted by others as saying, “Today looks like a good day to lose my job.”
“And she went and harmed not one, two, three students!” Baysinger said.
This also includes Rosalyne Smith’s son.
“I’m hurting inside because I’m like, why didn’t you tell me that these things were happening?” Smith said.
Like Javis, her son kept silent about the teaching assistant’s abuse.
“She made him feel as though he was doing something wrong,” Smith said. “She basically put fear in my child as well.
Parents say the school failed to take action
The parents we spoke to believe school staff here at Helen Herr had numerous opportunities to protect their children but failed to act. Contact 13 had to repeatedly call the principal and when we finally spoke, he refused to comment about anything.
Attorney Neal Hyman is working with two of the families.
“I think the school’s got to learn from this and I think the only way a school learns from this is by incidents like this where people speak up,” he said.
Schwenke pulled Smith’s son “by the ear, put her hand on his face and pushed him.” She also pushed a third student, causing him to “fall and/or hit his head on a concrete pole.”
Schwenke did not return our multiple calls for comment. Police say she initially denied the allegations, then “began to cry” admitting some personal issues had “been taking a toll on her and “she could feel herself getting more frustrated and needing a break.”
“I have to actually give some kudos to the school police because they did a very thorough investigation and apparently took this matter very seriously,” Hyman said.
No jail time for the teaching assistant
School police recommended charges of child abuse, saying a person responsible for the safety and welfare of children caused them to suffer unjustifiable pain or mental suffering.
Although the Clark County District Attorney’s Office filed eight misdemeanor charges of battery and assault, Schwenke cut a deal, pleading guilty to three battery charges, one for each student. She got no jail time, a 90-day suspended sentence, some community service, anger management counseling and no contact with minor children.
“Basically it made me lose all respect for the judicial system,” Smith said.
Now both families must rebuild their trust in the school system.
“He has to go to school. But I keep a close eye now that this done took place,” said Baysinger, wiping a tear.
The school district wouldn’t go on camera for this story, saying they’re unable to discuss personnel matters.
Schwenke is no longer a CCSD employee. She resigned in May while her criminal case was pending.
Since teaching assistants are not licensed educators in Nevada, the state can’t take any action. But the state is developing a corrective action plan for Helen Herr Elementary after the school failed to report the incidents to the state special education department, which they’re required to do by law.