Educators accused of mistreating special-needs students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Three West Virginia educators accused of mistreating two special-needs students are facing criminal charges and civil lawsuits, according to published reports.

The lawsuits were filed Wednesday, the same day a teacher and two aides at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston were arraigned in Kanawha County Magistrate Court on misdemeanor battery charges, news outlets reported. The lawsuits accuse the school system of failing to properly screen, train and supervise employees.

Teacher Anthony Wilson, 45, and aides Lillian Branham, 65, and Walter Pannell, 71, were accused of harming two nonverbal students earlier this month, the lawsuit and police reports said. None of those accused has returned requests from the Charleston Gazette-Mail for comment.

The lawsuits filed in Kanawha Circuit Court accuse the employees of striking both children in the face “numerous times,” and “screaming and shouting” in their faces.

The incidents are from about 20 minutes of video from two days in May, Charleston-based attorney Ben Salango said. He said the school system has more video that will be reviewed.

According to criminal complaints, video shows Pannell pushing and dragging a male student, spanking him and threatening to punch him. Another video shows Pannell grabbing a female student by the back of her neck and shaking her and later spanking her.

Another complaint said video shows Branham grabbing a student by the chin and later slapping the child “multiple times.”

Another complaint said Wilson held a female student in place while an aide shook her.

An investigation began due to “a diligent administrator’s suspicion of something going on in the classroom,” which led the school to review video, Kanawha County Schools spokeswoman Briana Warner said in an email.

“KCS also wants to hold everyone in this situation accountable,” she wrote, “and that’s why we are the ones that reported the incident and are cooperating to the fullest extent with law enforcement and CPS (Child Protective Services) investigations.”

Salango was the lead counsel in a similar case in Berkeley County alleging school employees abused students. Those allegations contributed to the passage of a state law in 2019 that requires video cameras in public school special education classrooms.