Details emerge: Rocklin Unified knew about child abuse complaints

Police reports reveal complaints started October 2013
By: Andrew Westrope,
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Since filing claims against Rocklin Unified School District on Oct. 27 for the alleged physical and psychological abuse of their children by a special education teacher, a few parents have shared evidence that district administrators heard complaints months earlier but didn’t act.

The teacher, Sherry McDaniel, was responsible for nine students in grades 3-6 at Breen Elementary School. She has been accused of repeatedly abusing at least three of them, and was placed on paid administrative leave May 7, 2014.

According to a tort claim filed by attorney Peter Alfert of Walnut Creek for his clients Patrick and Jennifer Hugunin, parents of an alleged 8-year-old victim with autism, several teachers’ aides shared their concerns about McDaniel with school officials between October 2013 and April 2014. It wasn’t until Rocklin Police Department opened an investigation in May based on an anonymous phone call that the district put her on paid administrative leave and told parents about it.

A police report by Rocklin detectives says the anonymous phone call came April 29, 2014 from the friend of a couple whose son was being abused by McDaniel. The caller told police that when the child’s mother confronted McDaniel, McDaniel said she was tenured, had been written up five times since the beginning of school that year and there was nothing they could say to scare her.

Police found no prior criminal investigations on McDaniel, but proceeded to interview students, other teachers and teachers’ aides from McDaniel’s classroom who corroborated her pattern of abuse and the failure of her supervisors to stop it. The first aide told police she reported McDaniel to her union five times before January 2014 to no avail, and that Principal Chuck Thibideau was following protocol to get rid of McDaniel because she had been written up seven times in the first two months of school. That aide also told police McDaniel was, by her own account, ignoring the district’s protocol in favor of her own techniques that were “more outside the box.”

According to various witness testimonies in the police report, examples of these appeared to include, among other things:

- Disciplining students by lying on top of them and telling them to “shut up.”

- Commenting in front of students that teaching a particular black student “is like training with a monkey.”

- Throwing a student down a stairwell and onto the ground.

- Taking a child alone into an empty classroom, in violation of procedure, and later ask an aide if the child’s face looked bruised or swollen.

- Picking up a student, folding him in half by pressing his legs to his chest, throwing him bodily out of the classroom and locking the door to leave him alone outside and unsupervised as he screamed to be let back in.

- Pulling a student through the back of his desk chair, causing bruises.

- Kicking an exercise ball out from underneath a student, causing him to land on his back and buttocks.

- Instructing an aide to get a particular student away from her before she “killed him.”

- Taping a student’s fingers to a table so he couldn’t lift them for more than an hour.

Three teachers’ aides told police they gave journals to Thibideau with detailed accounts of McDaniel’s behavior over the past several months, and the police report includes conflicting testimonies about what happened to them – Thibideau told the aides he returned the journals, and the aides disagree.

There are also conflicting claims about whether Thibideau responded to prior complaints about McDaniel by other teachers and aides. At least one teacher’s aide said Thibideau started a process to dismiss McDaniel, while other aides and parents said he appeared to do nothing but listen. Special Education Director Janna Cambra was also present for a number of meetings with teacher’s aides, and one aide told police Cambra felt McDaniel was doing a “fantastic job.”

In an on-camera interview after McDaniel was put on leave, RUSD Superintendent Roger Stock told CBS13 he hadn’t heard of the allegations before May.

“We have no indication that this teacher has ever had any complaints or investigations of this type,” he said.

The district declined to elaborate on the brief statement it made last month.

In any case, Jennifer Hugunin said she was in “absolute shock” when the school district called her husband on May 5 to report that McDaniel had been removed from the classroom due to child abuse allegations. Hugunin later found out that other teachers and teacher aides had complained several times about McDaniel since she started in 2011, but administrators did not tell parents or take any apparent action until police got involved.

“In addition to the abuse itself, which obviously is concerning, is the fact that the district is aware of it and did nothing, and that is just so alarming to me. I wonder how children can be safe in this district, special needs or not,” she said. “The fact that the district is not taking complaints seriously is so concerning.”

Hugunin said the district has only confirmed that the allegations involved physical and verbal but not sexual abuse, and beyond that she’s heard nothing from the district. She has since started homeschooling her son, in part because he doesn’t fit any of the district’s remaining programs and also because she no longer trusts the district.

Hugunin said she and her husband are seeking damages through the lawsuit, but more than that, they are seeking change.

“(We) really want the district to be accountable for what they did and to change their procedures so that this doesn’t happen again, to provide better training to their teachers and aides. Everybody on that campus had a mandated reporter responsibility and did not follow through on that,” she said.