Mother claims in suit that special needs son sustained bruises at Havelock school

A judge denied a Craven County mother’s request for all investigative materials related to a therapeutic restraint used on her special needs child in a ruling on Tuesday.

According to a lawsuit filed by the mother, the use of the restraint led to what one physician described as “impressive bruises” indicating “excessive force” was applied.

Heather Currie, who filed a subpoena requesting the Craven County District Attorney’s Office produce the “complete disclosure of all investigation materials generated” from the investigation into the restraint of her son, which took place on Jan. 28 in the library of Havelock Elementary School. While Judge Clinton Rowe spent more than an hour listening to both sides in the case, he ultimately decided to quash Currie’s request for more information on what happened to her son, who has severe autism, leaving him without verbal abilities, as well as a seizure disorder.

This legal case brings to a head how the school system, legal system and elected officials handle a claim of potential abuse of a special needs child in Craven County.

Assistant District Attorney Robert McAfee represented the DA’s office, while Currie represented herself in the case.

After citing N.C. General Statutes excluding the DA’s office from the requirement to produce documents requested in the investigation and several case laws, Judge Rowe sided against the mother, stating he didn’t “think a subpoena to the DA’s office was the proper way” to receive information requested.

The origin of the subpoena and complaint

The complaint originated after Currie questioned the school district about the restraint used on her son in which one physician described as leading to excessive bruises, according to a civil counterclaim filed on July 1 by Currie against Kelly Forbis, an exceptional children’s teacher who taught her son.

The incident involving the restraint was found to be in noncompliance regarding the implementation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), according to a recent investigation by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which resulted in a corrective action plan for Craven County Schools. The plan calls for the school system to provide training to the special education teacher, case manager and school administrators, as well as a finding of noncompliance in state and federal laws concerning the education of a student with disabilities.

Craven County Schools was found to be in noncompliance with providing the student with a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) from Jan. 30 to May 19, a violation of state and federal laws.

Subpoena request

Currie’s broad request asked for all notes, interviews, emails, written statements, records and documents collected or produced during the investigation, including those provided by the Havelock Police Department and Craven County Schools, among a list of other items, including “all communications ... made by all employees, board members, detectives or officers” of the institutions.”

She also included a request for communication between Thomas and his mother, Linda Thomas, who serves as vice chair of the Board of Education as well as any correspondence from Craven County School Board of Education Chairman Carr Ipock.

McAfee argued that the Havelock Police Department investigated the incident and that the DA’s Office only makes the decision on whether to press criminal charges. Therefore, the police department should have all materials related to the investigation.

The DA’s Office isn’t the only one refusing to release information. Currie said she contacted members of the Havelock Police Department for the information and was shut out as well.

“I was told by Havelock Police that it is the DA who decides to charge and they will not meet with me to discuss my requests because this case is closed according to them,” Currie said.

When asked if there was an entity in which she could file a grievance regarding the release of requested information, Currie said she was directed back to the DA’s Office.

A letter to Currie from Thomas dated April 30, states, “Based upon a review — by myself and an Assistant District Attorney — of the factual materials as well as the applicable law, I do not find there is a sufficient basis to charge Kelly Forbis with any crime arising out of this incident.”

The letter also stated that the video surveillance footage requested by Currie is part of the investigative file, and as such, is not subject to disclosure under applicable North Carolina law.

“You will have to obtain a copy of that footage from the school or its attorney, if they decide it should be released to you,” Thomas wrote. In court, McAfee said, “No one can get the work product of the DA’s office.”

While N.C. General Statutes allow for these materials not to be disclosed, if an agency or official of the state believes it is in the public’s best interest to protect the integrity of the department, information may be disseminated, according to Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association.

“Essentially, there is nothing prohibiting law enforcement from releasing this information,” she said.

What’s next

A subpoena for information was also issued to Superintendent Lane Mills, asking for the same information.

Crystal Garrett is a reporter for the Sun Journal.