April 18, 2024

Lawsuit: IPS teacher encouraged students to beat up 7-year-old with disabilities

George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 is located on the near north side of Indianapolis. - Eric Weddle / WFYI

George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 is located on the near north side of Indianapolis.

Eric Weddle / WFYI

An Indianapolis Public Schools teacher allowed and encouraged the abuse of a 7-year-old second grader with disabilities in his classroom, according to a lawsuit filed against the district this week and a report from the Indiana Department of Child Services. 

In a cell phone video recorded by the teacher, Julious Johnican, is heard encouraging another student to keep beating up the 7-year-old, who is sobbing. 

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is now investigating the incident at the request of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, an IMPD spokesperson said Thursday.

Johnican did not immediately respond to WFYI messages requesting comment.

The 7-year-old boy first began telling his parents about physical abuse he was enduring in his classroom at George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 last August, according to the lawsuit. 

The complaint accuses Johnican of orchestrating a “fight club” style of discipline in his classroom, in which he “encouraged, instigated, and on at least one occasion recorded on his phone physical abuse” of the child by other students. 

Additionally, the suit claims that both the boy and his mother told school administrators and staff about the abuse last September, but it was never investigated or reported. 

Any individual, including school employees, are required by state law to report suspected child abuse to DCS. 

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for IPS wrote that, when they learned of Johnican’s conduct, the district immediately notified DCS, and suspended him. The district said they weren’t made aware of any fights encouraged or facilitated by this teacher or any other educator until the parent emailed the principal on the evening of Oct. 30.

The principal, Mary Kapcoe, then immediately notified DCS and IPS Human Resources the following morning, according to the district. 

Johnican was “immediately removed from the building and never returned to the classroom,” according to the IPS spokesperson. They added that he was interviewed by HR on Nov. 2 and resigned before the district could initiate termination proceedings. 

But the lawsuit contradicts the claim that school staff immediately reported the abuse. Catherine Michael, an attorney representing the boy’s family, said the assistant principal of School 87, Finae Rent, was informed by the boy’s mother about the abuse allegations in September. And the boy told an IPS behavioral consultant, Anthony Bigby, about the abuse at that time as well. 

“Did IPS act, you know, immediately? I think it's pretty clear that that's not what happened,” Michael said. 

Video evidence

The lawsuit says the boy suffered “at least three beatings,” including one assault in which the child was thrown to the ground, struck, slapped and hit in the head repeatedly by other students. The lawsuit also alleges that on two occasions the child was held by Johnican while other students were allowed to punch, hit and kick him.

The boy’s parents said they repeatedly contacted Johnican to discuss their son’s reports of abuse in his classroom. According to the complaint, they were told their son was disruptive, lying to get out of attending school or possibly mentally ill. 

Then, during a parent teacher night last fall, Johnican showed the boy’s parents a video of their son being beaten by another student. 

In the video, another student is seen sitting on top of the boy, punching and hitting him in the face, and banging his head into the floor several times. From behind the camera, Johnican says, “you guys done?” and then follows up with, “that’s right… get him.” The boy sobs while the other student continues to hit him. 

Lawyers for the boy’s family say that Johnican inadvertently showed the video to his parents, and when they attempted to grab the phone, he accidentally turned up the volume so they could hear his voice encouraging the students to continue. 

“If this video hadn't emerged, we can only imagine the destruction that would have been occurring for this child's psychological health as that year continued,” Michael said. “Not to mention…this is a child who was getting repeated brain injuries.”

There are conflicting accounts of who first contacted DCS and when about the video around the end of October. The boy’s attorneys and a statement from the IPS spokesperson offer differing events.

A subsequent DCS investigation determined that Johnican neglected the students. A DCS investigator wrote in their report that Johnican “knowingly and willingly engaged in behaviors towards the victims that jeopardized their overall well-being while in his care as a teacher at IPS 87.”

In an email to families on Wednesday, IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson wrote that she was outraged by the video and that the district is committed to “keeping our students safe.” She wrote that IPS staff “responded immediately and appropriately” to the incident. 

Johnican, who is 23 and a first-year teacher, told the DCS investigator that he was given the choice to resign or be fired. An IPS personnel report lists Johnican's resignation as effective Nov. 2

‘Bad kids’

According to the DCS report, Johnican said the fight occurred on Sept. 22, the same day the boy’s mother received a phone call from school staff who told her her son was distraught and could not calm down. 

When she arrived at the school, the boy’s mother told the assistant principal of School 87, Finae Rent, about concerns she had about her son being abused in Johnican’s classroom, according to the lawsuit. The complaint says Rent did not follow-up with the boy’s mother with any information or investigation. 

She also said school staff did not explain why her son was so distraught. Her son told her that another student, in the presence and at the instruction of Johnican, had slammed his head down on a desk, pulled him to the floor and repeatedly hit him in the head, according to the suit. 

In his interview with the DCS investigator, Johnican said the fight he filmed occurred after the boy’s mother had left. He said the boy was removed from his classroom after the altercation by Bigby, the behavioral consultant. 

A substitute teacher, Pardeep Dahliwal, told the DCS investigator that she was assisting in the classroom that day and knew Johnican had recorded the fight. 

Kapcoe, School 87 principal, told the DCS investigator that she met with Dahliwal and asked her about the incident. She said her response was they're "bad kids, that's what you do!” Kapcoe told the DCS investigator that she explained to Dahliwal that Johnican’s actions were inappropriate.

Michael, the attorney for the boy’s family, said this incident isn’t an isolated one, and that students are being harmed in classrooms throughout the state due to a lack of supervision and training by school personnel. 

“We have lots of first-year teachers who have very, very little experience in classrooms,” Michael said. “They are not being mentored, they are not being trained, they are not being taught what being a mandatory reporter means… this is an enormous problem.” 

The lawsuit, which names the IPS Board of School Commissioners, Johnican, Johnson, and other School 87 administrators and staff as defendants, seeks both compensatory and punitive damages. 

Johnican’s teaching license is currently listed as active, according to state records. 

The boy is now being homeschooled. 

Contact WFYI education reporter Lee V. Gaines at lgaines@wfyi.org.


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