When parents of a Michigan kindergartner went to school officials to complain about alleged sexual abuse their son endured from other classmates, they didn’t like the response.
That’s according to a lawsuit filed by those parents, who allege that four of their son’s classmates touched and sodomized him during school hours and also took pictures of his genitals on school iPads.
In spring 2015, then-Grandville Superintendent Ron Caniff and Assistant Superintendent Scott Merkel “stressed that the pictures needed to be viewed in the context of kindergarteners’ normal curiosity,” the lawsuit says, “and suggested that if the parents insisted on pressing the matter, Jimmy would be the one to be disciplined as he was the only child whose genitals were photographed.’’
The alleged abuse started in fall 2014. The four boys would take their classmate to another part of the classroom during “free time,” the lawsuit says, and would touch and sexually assault him.
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The lawsuit alleges that the boys told him how to pose for the naked images they took with iPads provided to the class, and that they continued to delete previous lewd images to make space for new ones. The four are accused of threatening the boy if he told anyone about their actions, saying that they wouldn’t be his friend and would put the blame on him.
Meanwhile, the boy’s parents say they noticed their son “was both physically and emotionally deteriorating” and talked to his teacher, Hillary Huberts, during an Oct. 2014 meeting to ask her to watch out for bullying. Their son confessed that he didn’t like school because of “pictures,” the lawsuit says, and the parents alerted Huberts, who in turn said she noticed nothing wrong.
It wouldn’t be until April 2015 that Huberts finally saw the lewd images, the lawsuit says. The teacher told the boy’s parents that she noticed one of her male students trying to cover up an image on his iPad — and that she found many images of genitals on it. Another one of the students tried to delete the pornographic images on his device, too, according to the lawsuit, but didn’t get rid of all of them before Huberts confiscated his iPad.
Tonia Shoup, principal of the school, called the boy’s mother and said she had talked to her son and the four boys. Shoup said that the boy confessed to letting his classmates take the images of his genitals. But the boy’s mom argues that his classmates told him what to say to school officials — or they threatened to no longer be his friend.
The mom told Shoup to keep the pictures for evidence, the lawsuit alleges, but the principal said police told her to delete them. Shoup is accused of calling police at the behest of the boy’s worried parents but saying that there was no coercion in the case and that the investigation had been completed.
A report from Wyoming police shows that the principal called them to say no bullying occurred and it was the boy’s decision to have images of his genitals taken, but they were never shared online, according to WOOD-TV.
Finally, the parents talked to Caniff and Merkel, hoping to receive some action. But the lawsuit argues that the school officials said they had no idea iPads could cause a problem with students this young, and that the boy would face blame for the images because his genitals were in the pictures.
“At the time I was at Grandville Public Schools, there was never any suspicion, suggestion or complaint expressed about inappropriate physical contact between the students involved in this matter,” his statement read, “nor did the investigation indicate any concerns in that regard.
“As I read through the complaint, there are several allegations that will be refuted, but since attorneys are involved, that will occur in due course through the legal process. Beyond this, I do not have more to add at this time since this is a pending legal matter.’’
An attorney for the school district also pushed back against details in the lawsuit to WOOD-TV.
The lawsuit says the boy dropped out of school and started kindergarten classes over again for the 2015-16 school year. But students there had heard of his nude photos, the lawsuit argues, and continued to taunt and bully him for it. He would bury himself in mulch during recess to avoid his taunting classmates.
Police eventually investigated the alleged sexual assault in September 2016, according to WOOD-TV, but dropped the investigation after Assistant Kent County Prosecutor Vicki Seidl said no charges would be filed because of the age of the suspects.