Moms have lots of tricks to get toddlers to eat. They slice cheese into fun little shapes, using carrot sticks as arms and broccoli for hair, but sometimes the lunch they pack for their preschooler comes home uneaten.
But what if the child's preschool teacher uses force to make sure she eats everything? According to one Florida family, that's exactly what happened to their daughter and the whole thing was caught on tape.
When 18-month-old Brinley Cleary’s mom, Jamie, picked her up from The Kings Academy Preschool in July, according to WPBF News, the teacher said she had scratched her face on the playground. But later that afternoon, Jamie noticed fingerprint-shaped bruises on both sides of her cheeks. When Brinley's father, Chris, came home from work that day, the couple agreed to send an email to the school’s director addressing their concerns and asking for a better explanation.
The school director allegedly told the parents that she had examined footage from the classroom video and determined that the incident occurred when the teacher “saved” Brinley from choking.
She went on to explain that the video supported what the teacher had said—that Brinley was choking, the teacher tried to clear her mouth, but Brinley clamped down on her fingers, so the teacher had to “squeeze” her cheeks to free her fingers.
But the father wasn’t buying her story and asked to view the video himself.
The following week, the school director recanted her initial response, claiming there was a technical malfunction that caused her to view the wrong video. The correct footage—surprise!—showed a different series of events, which she then forwarded to her managers. The director was told to terminate the teacher and the classroom assistant immediately.
According to a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office report, the video showed the teacher “pushing the child's head back. She appeared to force food into the child's mouth at least twice. She was gripping the child's face with her hand, which is consistent with the bruises I observed in the pictures."
Further investigations, conducted by the Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Health, state that the video shows Brinley crying and shaking while her teacher screamed "open up, open up.” The teacher was so loud that another teacher came into the room to check on them.
Surprisingly, the director who failed to report the incident (the same one who “accidentally” viewed the wrong video footage) wasn’t fired. Instead, she was put on administrative leave and later reassigned to the preschool's main campus.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of child abuse, confirmed by sheriff’s detectives, DCF and the DOH—who cited the school for not reporting the incident to the Abuse Hotline immediately as required by state law—school president Randal Martin stands by the (now former) teacher’s original story. In early October, he sent a letter to parents stating there were inaccuracies in the DOH report.
"In the process of clearing food from the mouth of a choking student, the teacher pinched the cheeks of the child … (causing) ... temporary bruising," he wrote.
Stuart Kaplan, attorney for the Cleary family, told reporters, “This is obviously a clear-cut case of an assault and battery on an 18-month old child who obviously can’t speak or defend themselves.”
The family is suing the school, alleging that the director lied and yet is still employed.
“I just want parents to know the truth about The King’s Academy and who is running The King’s Academy," Jamie said, "and it is not—I don’t think it’s a safe place. I mean, these babies can’t even defend themselves.”