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After preschool abuse was not reported to police, parents push for change: 'The protocol failed these kids'

Posted at 6:44 PM, Apr 04, 2023

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A Chesterfield County parent whose child was allegedly assaulted by a preschool teacher said the school district has made "no effort to protect the children," and they're pushing for a policy change.

Court documents revealed a teacher's assistant witnessed 57-year-old Lisa Harbilas, a teacher at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy, become frustrated with special needs children.

Harbilas then reportedly spanked the children, grabbed their necks, pulled them to the floor, and slapped their faces. These incidents happened on November 29 and November 30 and impacted four students, according to a search warrant.

Months prior, the warrant showed the school district had investigated another incident of physical abuse in August in which Harbilas allegedly pulled a child's hair and restrained them with her legs.

For that incident, the school issued Harbilas a reprimand, according to the warrant.

In total, five children were allegedly assaulted by Harbilas.

“One time, yes, a mistake. Maybe two times, okay. Three, four, five times? We have a concern," said education advocate Kandise Lucas.

After the November alleged assaults, the warrant showed Harbilas was suspended. However, in March she was allowed to return to school.

CBS 6 has asked Chesterfield County Public Schools spokesperson Shawn Smith and the county's five School Board members why Harbilas was approved to come back to the classroom after allegedly assaulting kids. They have not responded.

Chesterfield Police said neither the school district nor child protective services reported any of the alleged assaults to the police department.

"That's not acceptable to me," said a parent involved in the case who wished to remain anonymous. "A blatant disregard for the children and the parents."

It wasn't until parents came forward to law enforcement that police became aware of the alleged abuse, launched an investigation, executed a search warrant for Harbilas' personnel files that were being held by Chesterfield Schools, and ultimately charged Harbilas with twelve counts of simple assault.

Lucas, who said she has spent years advocating for parents whose children were assaulted in schools, said this incident exposed systematic problems with how schools and child protective services (CPS) handle these cases.

“A lot of school divisions and CPS go into damage control mode, no matter how egregious the case is," Lucas said. "So, I'm truly grateful to these families for pressing the issue, because the laws need to be changed.”

Under the current state law, CPS shall report cases of abuse involving an injury or threatened injury to a child in which a felony or class one misdemeanor is suspected. CBS 6 legal analyst said, based on the state code, this case should've been reported to the police.

In a statement, Chesterfield Social Services Director Kiva Rogers said allegations against public school employees have additional considerations that go beyond normal CPS investigative procedures. She said allegations against public school employees have to meet extra validity criteria.

“Our position is that CPS has a different standard for school board employees when they really should have a higher standard as far as protecting children," Lucas said. "Rarely does CPS find that a school board employee has harmed the child no matter how egregious it is, unless it is something related to sexual assault. In those instances, a lot of times the parents, just like in this case, are the ones who go ahead and push the issue."

CPS said it could not comment specifically on the case due to the ongoing investigation. In response to that, CBS 6 asked how Harbilas was allowed to return to the school if a CPS investigation is ongoing. We are still waiting for a response.

Parents involved in the case told CBS 6 they were never contacted by CPS investigators for any interviews, discussions, meetings, or questioning. They added CPS investigators never asked to speak with their child.

CBS 6 also reached out to the Virginia Department of Social Services which oversees and supervises the local social services agency to ask how it would ensure reporting standards are followed and if the state is reviewing how the case was handled. A VDSS spokesperson said they could not comment.

For schools, mandatory reporting laws show schools are only required to report offenses to law enforcement when they constitute a felony.

Lucas said that the bar is too low.

“I believe that not only should CPS be contacted, the police should be contacted, but also the Virginia Department of Education should be contacted. There should be wraparound contacts," Lucas said.

Chesterfield Police Captain Michael Breeden previously told CBS 6 that the school district didn't do anything wrong according to the state code.

"If the protocol was followed, then the protocol needs to be changed because the protocol failed these kids," a parent involved in the case said.

Chesterfield Public Schools spokesperson Shawn Smith hasn't responded to any of CBS 6's questions that were sent Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

The Chesterfield School Board has not responded to CBS 6's inquiries that were sent Monday and Tuesday.

CBS 6 reached out to the surrounding school districts about their policies and protocols for reporting assaults. Here's what they said:

RICHMOND PUBLIC SCHOOLS:

Any incident of inappropriate conduct involving an employee and student(s) is immediately reported to Richmond Police Department, Child Protective Services and the division's Employee Relations Department. The employee is placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

HANOVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS:

School Board Policy 2-3.4 details our relations with law enforcement agencies, including the reporting of certain offenses. The policy can be found on BoardDocs. Additionally, our administrators receive annual training that outlines the parties who need to be contacted when these rare and unfortunate situations arise. 

For any teacher-on-student allegation reported, we are required to notify law enforcement, child protective services, human resources, and the parents. Our Emergency Manager is also engaged throughout the process and investigation.

HENRICO PUBLIC SCHOOLS:

Henrico said its policy reflects the state code which states any assault in which a person is injured on school property must be reported to the superintendent. It also states principals must report offenses to law enforcement when it constitutes a felony.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.