Andrea Maschka takes her daughter, Berkley, grocery shopping during school hours these days.
The 9-year-old doesn’t want to risk running into her former principal in the store’s aisles, her mom says.
It’s one adjustment the Maschkas say they have made since a Nov. 11 confrontation with administrators at Waukee’s Walnut Hills Elementary School left their daughter bruised and frightened.
According to the Maschkas, the principal, assistant principal and school nurse all pushed and prodded their daughter, who was having an anxiety attack, to get her into a wheelchair and out of the school office.
Police investigated the case as an assault causing bodily injury. A police report obtained by The Des Moines Register said law enforcement collected 33 photographs of Berkley’s bruises as evidence.
But the Dallas County attorney decided there was no proof the administrators intended to harm Berkley, and no charges were filed.
The Waukee school district says it investigated the incident, but it declined to disclose what investigators found or say whether any school employees were reprimanded. All three Walnut Hills administrators remained on the job during the investigation and through the end of the school year.
Berkley’s bruises have since faded, but the Maschkas say their daughter still deals with anxiety, trauma and post-traumatic stress.
They’ve pulled both their school-age children from the district and will home-school them for now.
“I don’t know if my daughter will ever go back to a school again. She’s terrified because the very people who were supposed to protect her and keep her safe were the very ones who hurt her,” Andrea Maschka said. “It’s going to take a long, long time to heal from this.”
The Maschkas say Walnut Hills teachers and administrators for years ignored repeated reports that their daughter was bullied.
Andrea Maschka said Berkley didn’t want to return to her third-grade classroom the day of the incident with administrators because she was having anxiety about facing the student who had bullied her since kindergarten.
The classmate would call Berkley fat and lift her skirt, her parents said. She told other students not to eat with Berkley at lunch or play with her at recess.
The taunting continued for four years at Walnut Hills, Andrea Maschka said.
In first grade, Berkley started to withdraw, her parents said. She refused to get out of bed and would complain of stomach aches.
She developed anxiety about going to school, “wondering if she’ll be humiliated that day,” her mother said.
Andrea Maschka said she talked to teachers and administrators about the bullying at least 40 times. They told Berkley to walk away, tell an adult or find another place to play if it happened again.
When Berkley and her bully were in the same gym class, the school’s solution to stop the taunting was to remove Berkley from gym altogether, Brian Maschka said.
On another occasion, Berkley was told by a teacher to play on another playground at recess.
“Really no help was given,” Brian Maschka said. “I got tired of removing her, because she’s not the problem.”
Andrea Maschka provided the Register with eight emails sent to teachers between January 2014 and October 2016 detailing the bullying. Two of the emails were sent directly to the principal.
In January 2015, Berkley’s bully spread a rumor that she had lice, one email said.
“My concern is that now this is one more thing on a long list that Berkley has to put up with being said about her. Let’s add it to the list of ‘you’re giant,’ ‘you’re bigger than everyone,’ ‘you’re fat,’ ‘you have a big belly,’ ‘you have lice.’ That’s a lot for a sweet little girl to have to continually defend herself against,” her mother wrote.
Berkley and her teacher began trading a journal back and forth in October. Berkley would describe how she was feeling that day, and her teacher would respond with encouraging notes.
In one entry, Berkley is excited about going to school to learn reading and math. But the next week Berkley tells her teacher she is “to (sic) worried and nervous” about being bullied to attend class.
“I am worried that (she) will bully me again today. I am really upset and worried about it and I just need to stay home today,” Berkley wrote.
Representatives from the Waukee Community School District declined to comment on Berkley’s experience with bullying, citing federal student privacy laws and the district’s policy to keep reports confidential.
They would not confirm whether any of the Maschkas’ claims were investigated.
District policy requires parents and students to report bullying through a formal complaint process that includes first telling a teacher or administrator and then documenting the harassment.
An investigation is launched by the assistant superintendent of human resources if a written complaint is filed or if it’s requested by the principal, the policy states.
“The district promptly investigates allegations of bullying, harassment or misconduct,” spokeswoman Nicole Lawrence said in a statement.
Andrea Maschka said she never filed a formal complaint because she was told the school would handle her reports. The principal told her to make verbal reports, she said.
“I do feel that other parents have a right to know that there have been complaints of bullying in the district that haven’t been given the attention that they need,” Maschka said. “In our case, it went too far.”
According to data from the Iowa Department of Education, Waukee has reported fewer than 10 incidents of bullying districtwide in each of the past four years.
Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the state office, said districts only report on “founded incidents” as defined by state law, which describes bullying in part as any electronic, written, verbal or physical conduct that has a “substantially detrimental effect on the student’s physical or mental health.”
More specific numbers are not provided if there are fewer than 10 bullying incidents to protect student identities.
The Iowa Department of Education does not have the authority to review how local school districts implement the state’s anti-bullying and anti-harassment law, Hupp said.
But the department considers it best practice to investigate all bullying complaints, whether they’re verbal or written.
“It is always appropriate for the school to look into the matter and talk to the students involved, call the parents, etc.,” a posted Iowa Department of Education worksheet states. ”Not having to report this … does not mean not taking any action.”
Andrea Maschka said Berkley was shaking and crying as they walked into school Nov. 11, so her mother took her to the office to calm down.
She left Berkley there.
Administrators later called the Maschkas to report the incident. They told Andrea Maschka that Berkley had a hard time getting to class, and she’d have to stay after to make up the work she missed.
Maschka said she and her husband planned to talk to their daughter after school and tell her she needed to improve her behavior.
But then Berkley told them what happened.
“Both of us were just really in shock, actually,” Andrea Maschka said.
They filed a police report 11 days later.
Berkley’s account is documented in the report and in a letter written by her psychologist to the family’s attorneys.
Both documents say the principal, assistant principal and school nurse tried for 90 minutes to get the 9-year-old into a wheelchair so they could take her to her classroom.
Berkley, who was sitting on the floor in the main office, said Principal Lyndsay Marron, Assistant Principal Allison Salow and nurse Katie Wittmer pulled her up by her wrists and arms.
They used their feet to push and kick her back and buttocks, and then forcibly held her down in the wheelchair, she said.
Berkley told police she asked the women to “please stop because you’re hurting me.”
She eventually agreed to walk to class with the school’s guidance counselor.
Messages left for the administrators by The Des Moines Register were not returned, and a message left for Waukee’s superintendent was returned by the district’s spokeswoman.
Detective Don Vestal from the Urbandale Police Department interviewed Berkley on Dec. 14 at the Regional Child Protection Center, an office at Blank Children’s Hospital that helps conduct forensic interviews of child abuse victims.
He wrote in his report that Berkley was shaking as she recounted what happened. She told him she was scared the teachers would hurt her more.
“During the interview, Berkley physically demonstrated being kneed in the back, being pushed with feet, being grabbed by the wrist, upper arms and armpits,” his report states.
Berkley had bruises on her arms, side, neck, back and bottom. Andrea Maschka provided the Register with photos of the bruises taken after school and again two days later.
Marron and Salow both told police they don’t know how Berkley could have been bruised during the office confrontation. Marron told police the girl had scooted across the floor to get away from the women.
She said her foot was in light contact with Berkley’s back as she used a “close proximity technique” to try to get her to stand up. Berkley was pushing her back into Marron’s feet, the principal told police.
The principal also told police the women purposely lifted Berkley by her armpits “so she didn’t get hurt.”
After Vestal showed Marron pictures of the bruises, “she said she is shocked to see that this is anything that they could have done,” he wrote in the report.
Vestal forwarded his report claiming assault causing bodily injury to the Dallas County Attorney’s Office for review. Police were later informed that prosecutors would not pursue charges after finding ”no evidence of intent to commit an assault or injury,” a report states.
Dallas County Attorney Wayne Reisetter declined to comment on Berkley’s case. But he said state law requires proof that someone intended to cause harm to justify an assault charge.
“We have to ethically see there was some kind of evil intent with what happened,” Reisetter said.
Lawrence, the district’s spokeswoman, declined to comment on the incident, saying the district is not authorized to publicly share details about confidential student or staff records.
“We can share that board policy was followed, appropriate actions were taken by the district’s Level I investigator, and the district fully cooperated with the Urbandale Police Department,” she said.
District policy allows for reasonable force “not designed or intended to cause pain” to gain control of disruptive students or remove them from the classroom and other common spaces. Policy also allows for reasonable physical contact to maintain control.
The Maschkas say they’re disappointed with the outcome.
Berkley was seeing a therapist before the incident, but her visits are more frequent now, her mother said. She has been diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder, coupled with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of the incident, they say.
Seven months later, she still struggles, telling her mother, “I’m scared … that the teachers are gonna come get me.”
Andrea Maschka said people don’t understand the damage that has been done.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, she was bullied, that’s too bad. Move on,'” she said. “I only wish it were that easy.”
She said she’s frustrated by what she sees as a lack of response by the school district after the confrontation with administrators and during Berkley’s four-year struggle with bullying.
Mostly, she said she’s sad for her daughter — a little girl who wanted to be a teacher, but who now thinks school is where people go to get hurt.
“I do feel like we’ve been put on this path for a reason, and it’s to speak out. We’ve got to protect our kids,” Andrea Maschka said. “But it’s been a nightmare for sure.”
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