A father is suing the state Department of Education for two alleged assaults two years ago on his son, a former Hilo Union School student, by a school employee who was sentenced to probation last year for assaulting the boy.
The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed Monday in Hilo Circuit Court by attorney Brooks Bancroft on behalf of the family, whose identities the Tribune-Herald are keeping confidential because the victim is a minor. In addition to the DOE, the suit names Sharon Furstenwerth, the elementary school’s student activities coordinator, Patti Andrade-Spencer, its principal, and unnamed “Roe” defendants.
According to the lawsuit, Furstenwerth hit the boy, then 9 and a third-grader, in the back or shoulders while he was eating lunch on May 7, 2012. The suit claims the blow was “substantial enough to ‘knock the wind’” out of the him and cause physical pain, and the assault was unprovoked and unjustified. The suit claims the boy’s father and stepmother went to Andrade-Spencer after school that day, and Andrade-Spencer took the family to Furstenwerth’s office, where Furstenwerth allegedly “offered to demonstrate the manner in which she struck” the boy.
“She thought it was such an OK thing to have done that she whacked him in the back again and we could audibly hear the smack, and he immediately started crying,” the father said. “The part that bothered me most is she literally whipped him out of my hands and said, ‘Let me show you.’ And then, smack! There was literally no time for me to open my mouth and say, ‘Stop!’ It just happened so fast.
“Then she said, ‘But I actually hit him harder before.’ And we were like, ‘Oh my gosh. What you just did is not OK.’”
According to court records, on Nov. 20, 2013, Furstenwerth pleaded no contest to third-degree assault and the boy was the victim. Records reflect she stipulated to a factual basis for the charge.
Furstenwerth was granted a deferred acceptance of her plea, which means the misdemeanor conviction will be erased from the record if she complies with terms of her one-year probation. Hilo District Judge Harry Freitas also ordered Furstenwerth to complete an anger management assessment and any recommended counseling by her probation officer, and to successfully complete stress management counseling. In exchange for her plea, another third-degree assault charge was dropped.
When informed Friday of the lawsuit’s allegations, Furstenwerth stated, “I did not twice assault him.” Asked if she assaulted the boy at all, Furstenwerth replied, “No.” Furstenwerth added she hadn’t been served with the suit.
“It’s really hard for me to reply because I haven’t seen the lawsuit,” she said.
The boy’s father said he and his wife “weren’t real happy” about the deferred plea, which was granted despite the objection of Deputy Prosecutor Paul Mow.
“But the one thing is, she had to apologize,” he said. “The judge made her turn around and apologize to us, which she had never done, and that was nice.”
The suit claims DOE and Andrade-Spencer “failed to suspend or discharge Furstenwerth for the assault/battery” and “conducted a cursory and inadequate investigation and imposed minimal, if any, discipline against Furstenwerth.”
“Nothing happened. There wasn’t any school investigation. There wasn’t any DOE investigation. It was like nobody wanted to do anything,” the father said.
The suit also claims Andrade-Spencer “in direct violation of DOE policies/procedures and applicable rules and law … failed to report the assault/battery … to law enforcement authorities.”
“Mrs. Andrade-Spencer, she was really nice to us, but she just didn’t do anything. It was all lip service,” said the father.
Andrade-Spencer referred the Tribune-Herald to DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz, who said Friday the department couldn’t comment because it hadn’t been served with the suit.
The father described the last two years as “a nightmare for my son.”
“He’s been hospitalized four or five times … for displaced rage syndrome,” he said. “He would just all of a sudden start attacking me, attacking family members. And this is something he’d never done before, ever.”
The man said the boy’s attacks started within three weeks of the incidents and “yelling, screaming and severe temper tantrums started within a week.”
The boy, now 11, is a fifth-grader at E.B. de Silva Elementary School, a change his father described as “night and day.” He said the boy still has trust issues with authority figures at school.
Asked about monetary compensation, the father said he hopes “it’s enough to wake up the school district so they’ll do something about it.”
“What we want is for this to never happen to another child. It shouldn’t be happening to kids,” he said. “The thought process here seems to be that this is OK and it needs to get out there that it’s not. This ruins kids. It really does. It takes away their childhood. My son lost … a good portion of his happy years to this stuff. The message here is that someone’s brief moment of anger can impact a child for the rest of their lives.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.