LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The parents of three special needs students are suing the Clark County School District (CCSD) after they say their children were abused in the classroom. It’s a story you are reading first on 8 News Now.

Parents say school leaders failed to tell them their children may have been abused. Their lawyers tell us this lawsuit isn’t just about what happened at one school.

They point to a system which they say fails to protect children.

“I’m hurt, and I’m devastated that my son had to go through this,” said mother Unique Barnett.

Mother Maria Garcia expressed, “I just feel so guilty about that I couldn’t see it because it’s something I never imagined.”

“I just couldn’t believe it,” shared stepfather Larry Bracamontes.

They are three parents of students with special needs who are trying to piece together what happened in a Thiriot Elementary third-grade classroom.

Two of the students are 8-years-old, and the other 9-years-old. They are all described to be functionally nonverbal, meaning they have a hard time communicating.

Barnett received a call from Child Protective Services (CPS).

“They advised me of the situation where my son and a few of his classmates were involved with the teacher and some hands-on abuse,” she recounted. “And they were being whipped with the stick he refers to as ‘Palo Palo.’ And so he was whipping them on their hands, on their bottoms.'”

According to the law firm, “Palo Palo” is the Filipino term for spanking.

Records show the timeline:

  • September 11, 2019: Three employees report concerns to the principal
  • September 12: Employee management relations tells the principal to investigate
  • September 13: The assistant principal says students say they’ve been hit

Principal Sonya Holdsworth called CCSD Police Dispatch, a call the I-Team obtained a recording of:

Holdsworth: “She was talking to them, and she said to them, ‘What’s this called?’ And they said, ‘Palo Palo.’ And she said, ‘Oh, what does it mean?’ And they knew it meant spank. And some of them, she had to specifically say, ‘has you, have you ever been hit with this? Mmhmm — and some of them said, ‘yes,’ and told her where.”

Dispatcher: “But they’re all pretty much having the same story, though?”

Holdsworth: “Yeah, they are. They are. That’s what, what this is, where we’re, where we’re really scared.”

Holdsworth: “So, we can’t tell anybody about this. We have to keep it quiet. We can’t even tell special ed. Like, we’re not even gonna tell them.”

That Friday afternoon, special needs teacher Shane Butuyan is put on leave with pay, pending an investigation. Communications tells the principal to let the parents know that Butuyan is on leave.

On Monday, school police are a no-show, but CPS shows up to the school.

Officers arrive at the school Tuesday afternoon. Six days after concerns were first reported, police begin an investigation.

Barnett says she learned about the investigation from CPS, not from school leaders or police.

“It made me panic,” she said. “I just sent my kid to the war zone. He’s being abused.”

Police say Butuyan denied hitting the children, but he said he told them the stick was a magic wand to give them powers, and it was a secret. Detectives concluded that six students were hit, tapped or poked, and recommended charges be filed against him for six counts of battery.

Two other parents, Garcia and Bracamontes, say they were not told their children were identified as victims by police until Barnett’s lawyers contacted them a year later.

“What I want is CCSD take responsibility, to be held accountable because they knew,” said Garcia.

Butuyan’s aide told police he told her to take students to another classroom every day. Garcia is concerned she doesn’t know about what may have happened if her daughter was alone with him.

“We take our children to school thinking they are gonna be safe, and they’re not,” she said.

There are no cameras in the classrooms, something special needs advocates have fought for, but CCSD has fought against.

The attorneys say due to the children’s disabilities, they cannot fully communicate everything they went through. However, their families have noticed changes, including:

  • Frequent nightmares
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Crying often
  • Becoming increasingly quiet, emotional, sad, withdrawn or aggressive with siblings
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Responding to simple reprimands by crying hysterically

The three families have filed a federal lawsuit against the district, the principal and assistant principal, the aide and Butuyan.

A relative of Butuyan’s tells the I-Team he believes he’s in the Philippines. We discovered he still has a Nevada teaching license.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education tells the I-Team the department recently learned about allegations and will investigate.

By law, CCSD is required to report aversive intervention against children with disabilities, including corporal punishment. Attorneys for the parents provided documents revealing zero reported during that school year.

When reached by phone Wednesday, Holdsworth told the I-Team all protocols were followed, but attorneys for the families allege concealment.

“It shows a culture of disregard and abuse of these children, which just needs to stop,” said Attorney Rahul Ravipudi.

The I-Team has also learned the District Attorney’s Office did not pursue charges against Butuyan, citing insufficient evidence. It’s another letdown for these parents.

“They failed these kids,” Garcia lamented.

Lawyers allege that the aide also abused the students. We are not naming her since, as far as we know, police did not recommend charges against her. The I-Team asked CCSD if she still works there and has yet to receive an answer.

The district did email us, however, saying it does not comment on pending litigation.

According to records, Butuyan taught at Von Tobel Middle School during the 2018-19 school year, before moving to Thiriot. Lawyers believe there could be more victims. If you suspect or know someone who has experienced abuse while attending school, or you have additional information regarding these cases, please contact Panish Shea & Boyle LLP at (702) 560-5520.