Broward County

Teachers saw pain behind doomed kids’ smiles

The seven oak trees — freshly planted in a time of death to celebrate life — will eventually grow until they provide a cool canopy enveloping the elementary school in Bell, the Florida town where four students were gunned down a month into the school year.

The loss of Sarah Spirit’s children is possibly felt more keenly at Bell Elementary than anywhere else: Teachers, counselors and a nurse all fought for years to protect the youngsters — some going as far as calling a child abuse hotline, records suggest. A guidance counselor once paid the family’s power bill to shield the children from the dark.

None of it was enough to save the four, and their two younger siblings, from their grandfather’s gun.

About an hour after Destiny Stewart, Johnathan Kuhlmann, Kylie Kuhlman and Kaleb Kuhlman stepped off their school bus on Sept. 18 and entered grandfather Don Charles Spirit’s mobile home, they were shot dead. Also killed were younger siblings Alana and Brandon Stewart, and their 28-year-old mother. Investigators say Don Spirit — a violent convicted felon who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — offered no explanation for the carnage in a 911 call moments before he killed himself.

Though no one in little Bell (pop. 453) had foreseen so tragic an epilogue, many in the town had expressed smaller worries. For two years, Bell Elementary School workers had warned the state Department of Children & Families that Sarah Spirit could not — or would not — take care of her children. For two years, their warnings went unheeded.

In death, Spirit’s six children join a handful of other Florida youngsters whose suffering had been dutifully reported by anxious educators, to no avail.

On Thanksgiving Day 1997, searchers flooded a rural area in Lake County in search of Kayla McKean. Starting in April of that year, the 6-year appeared regularly at school with a variety of injuries: a broken nose, two fractures to her hand, and black eyes that had swollen shut. Frightened teachers phoned the state’s abuse hotline. But investigators ignored their warnings.

Kayla, it turned out, was already dead that holiday weekend, and buried in a shallow grave near a creek in the Ocala National Forest. Her father, Richard Adams, is serving a life sentence.

The next year, a state grand jury recommended that “all reports of suspected abuse emanating from a school employee be given a presumption of validity.”

A decade later, on Feb. 18, 2008, 6-year-old Joshua Jenkins was savagely beaten by his stepfather. Blows to the Lee County boy’s liver drained him of nearly a gallon of blood. The killing had followed two years’ worth of torturous abuse, much of it reported by teachers: a broken arm, bruising to the boy’s face and chest, a bloody gash to his head requiring staples, dark brown bruises to his wrist. “Dad,” Joshua told his teachers, had kicked and punched him.

One teacher related how Joshua had clung to her leg after one of the beatings. A series of investigations, inexplicably, all concluded Joshua was safe.

And then, in 2011, there was Nubia. A blistering review of DCF’s role in the death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona — the Miami girl, police say, was tortured for weeks before her state-approved adoptive parents beat her to death on Feb. 11, 2011 — was titled simply “The Nubia Report.”

Like Kayla and Joshua before her, Nubia had been the subject of multiple hotline reports initiated by her teachers, who said the former foster child was dangerously underfed, was pulling out her own hair, showed up at school bruised and unkempt, had disclosed being beaten on her feet, and was petrified of her adoptive parents.

Former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez served on the investigative panel that wrote “The Nubia Report.” He said educators and school administrators “serve an essential role” in protecting children from domestic abuse and neglect as they are often “the child’s first and only line of defense from abusive and dangerous parents.”

“Their observations and concerns carry tremendous credibility, as they are, additionally, impartial and disinterested, only looking out for the best interests of the child,” said Martinez, who served eight years on the Florida Board of Education, two of them as vice chairman.

“If DCF receives from a teacher or school-based administrator serious information of potential abuse or neglect, that information should be treated at the highest level of concern and investigated immediately and thoroughly until there is a satisfactory resolution that leaves no doubt about the well-being and safety of the child,” Martinez added.

Chaos swirled

In its review of DCF’s long and troubled history with the Spirit family, the agency insisted Wednesday that while the Sept. 18 massacre was tragic, it could not have been foretold.

“There is no evidence to suggest that anyone, at any time, could have predicted that Don Spirit was capable of murdering his six grandchildren, his daughter and then taking his own life,” the report said.

“This family was well known to staff, law enforcement, the school system and everybody who resided in this small community,” the report said. “This level of familiarity played a role in ongoing assessments of the family. Staff thought they knew and understood the dynamics and child safety risks within this family and their view of the family appeared not to change over time. Staff essentially became conditioned to emerging factors that should have more fully informed their assessment.”

Hundreds of pages of DCF records reveal the Spirits to be a dysfunctional, yet loving, family wrecked by poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence and the instability of shuffling from home to home.

Despite the chaos that swirled, the children seemed resilient and happy.

Kaleb liked to make rubber band bracelets and had sold some to earn extra money. As a big brother, he helped supervise the younger children. Johnathan was slight and liked making bracelets, too. Kylie, the oldest girl, liked shoes and making bracelets. Destiny was an active kindergartner. Brandon was the funny one and was just starting school this year. And Alanna, who would have turned 3 months old on Sept. 28, was described by her mother as “an easy baby who doesn’t cry much and is easy to console with food or a changing diaper.”

In such a small community, the children were highly visible. “The school helped in any way it could,” said Gilchrist County Superintendent Robert Rankin, whose system includes 2,700 students at four schools, including Bell Elementary. “It is not unusual for a teacher to see a child in the same clothes over and over and go out and buy them clothes or shoes. I am sure it is the same in Miami-Dade,” he added.

The superintendent said the four oldest children went to his Baptist church, riding the bus regularly to services and attending vacation Bible school. Rankin’s wife also taught them at Sunday School.

“You could see that they didn’t have a lot,’” he said. “But they also seemed like happy kids.”

Duct tape and bleach

The elementary school, records suggest, often served as a sentry when the Spirit children were in danger.

In a lengthy 2013 case, guidance counselor Kathy Weaver said Sarah Spirit once tried to sell her food stamps — though the children often complained they were hungry. “Mother is probably on the low-end of normal,” the report quoted Weaver as saying, “but street-wise.”

Concerns from school workers appear to have been expressed first around 2012. That January, the hotline was told that Kylie had been forced to repeat kindergarten for the second time. “She is not at school enough to have her tested for a learning disability,” the report said. She also suffered from chronic head lice, which resulted in frequent absences. “The mother does not have enough money to pay bills, buy food, buy diapers or for transportation,” the report added. “There are things going on in the home.”

The next month, on Feb. 28, 2012, DCF was told that 8-year-old Kaleb had shown up at school with his foot wrapped in toilet paper and duct tape. Beneath the tape: a gaping wound that had become infected. Spirit, the report said, chose not to take Kaleb to a doctor. Instead, she soaked his wounded foot in bleach. It was the school, DCF wrote, that ensured Kaleb’s foot was properly treated. A school nurse cleaned and bandaged Kaleb’s deep cut, which was described as “red and swollen.”

Even after Spirit was told to take Kaleb to a doctor, she ignored the advice, DCF said. Instead, Spirit said she followed the direction of an unidentified doctor, who told her over the phone to soak the wound in water “with a capful of bleach.”

“There are concerns for Kaleb’s well-being,” the report said. It added: “The [school] nurse was so concerned about the child’s injury that [a registered nurse] from the local health department came to observe the injury. Twelve days after Kaleb gashed his foot, a school resource officer took him to see a doctor.

The DCF investigation that followed revealed that Spirit’s children were missing so much school that administrators were planning to file a truancy complaint. “The children do consistently have lice and children have missed a lot of school.” Spirit, the report said, “blames the school for the kids having lice every two weeks.”

And when the youngsters did attend, they often arrived so hungry that they stole food from their classmates. “The school has spoken to the mother about the children being hungry,” a report said, “and offered to bring the family food. However, the mother indicated they do not need assistance.”

Just the night before, Spirit said, she had cooked steak for the family. But, “when asked, one of the children indicated that the mother and stepfather had eaten steak, but the children had a choice of cereal or Ramen noodles.”

‘Pretty big burn’

This year, about six months before the children were killed, elementary school administrators once again expressed their concern. Around Feb. 12, 5-year-old Destiny arrived at school with a “pretty big burn” on her arm. Spirit told the school Destiny “was pushed into the space heater” by a 4-month-old puppy. “The burn would’ve been much better if it was treated last night,” the report said.

When an investigator arrived at Bell Elementary, there was more: Under prodding by her guidance counselor, Weaver, Destiny disclosed that her mother had beaten her foot with a paddle because the little girl would not go to bed. The paddling, a report said, left a “big bruise.” Spirit denied hitting the girl, saying Destiny tripped over a log.

Then, 17 days before the massacre, DCF had received a report that Spirit’s six children were at risk because the “adults” in their Gilchrist County home were abusing marijuana and Spice, a synthetic form of the drug. On Sept. 2, a DCF record says, an investigator called Weaver, the counselor.

Five-year-old Destiny, Weaver told the investigator, “has not been to school yet, and the mother has been given money for medicine to get rid of the [head] lice” that tormented her. “Ms. Weaver stated she paid the mother’s light bill so the lights would not get turned off. Ms. Weaver stated she doesn’t think the mother is capable of taking care of six children.”

On the Sunday after the family was killed, the community held a memorial service at Bell Elementary followed by a candlelight vigil outside at the bus loop where fresh oak trees now stand.

“We are doing everything we can to try to get past this,” said Superintendent Rankin.