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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mississippi Kindergarten Girl Severely Beaten: Child Abuse or School Negligence?

     Lacey Harris' 5-year-old daughter AvaLynn attended Kindergarten at Arlington Elementary School in Pascagoula, Mississippi. On Thursday August 28, 2014, the mother filed a police report claiming that her daughter had sustained serious facial injuries inflicted by another student on the school's unsupervised playground. Specifically, another kid had kicked the girl repeatedly in the face.

     From published photographs of the Harris child, one can see that her injuries were indeed substantial. Both of her eyes were black and swollen. She had a contusion and considerable swelling on her upper lip. Looking at these photographs, it's hard to imagine that these injuries had been inflicted by another school kid. That doesn't mean, however, that another child couldn't have been responsible for the trauma. It just seems unlikely.

     The day after Lacey Harris filed the police report, an official with the school district released the following statement: "A student was injured while playing on the playground at Arlington Elementary School Tuesday afternoon. School officers responded to the situation. The parent was contacted and the student received medical treatment. No other children were involved in the incident. The Pascagoula School District remains committed to the safety of all its students."

     The above statement leaves a lot to the imagination and raises many questions. Exactly how did the girl hurt herself? What were the extent of her injuries? Did the school call for an ambulance? Did other students witness the mishap? Was the playground under adult supervision? Is there security camera footage of the event? And finally, immediately after the girl was hurt, what did she say to school personnel?

     In speaking to a reporter with The Mississippi Press, Lieutenant Jim Roe of the Pascagoula Police Department, said: "The mother alleges another child kicked her daughter on the side…There is no indication that something criminal took place [at the school]. I have spoken with school security and an assistant superintendent is investigating the matter."

     On August 29, 2014, three days after the alleged assault, Lacey Harris, or people on her behalf, started a community Facebook page called, "Justice for AvaLynn." According to the Facebook version of the incident, "AvaLynn informed Lacey that she was assaulted by another student: that she was kicked repeatedly in the face until she fell off the slide on the school's playground. The school informed Lacey there were no teachers present when the incident occurred, and because of that, no one could prove whether or not another student had harmed AvaLynn."

     Lacey Harris also launched, online, a GoFundMe site to raise money for her daughter's medical and travel expenses. "There is a need for repeat CT scans, specialist visits to an ENT, ophthalmologist and quite possible orthopedics for her little face." Within a few days the mother raised more than $6,000 through the site.

     Lacey Harris has made a serious allegation against the Arlington Elementary School. An unsupervised playground is one thing, having a 5-year-old severely injured on that unwatched playground is much worse. If the allegation is true, a large court settlement is in the works.

     On the other hand, if Lacey Harris' story turns out to be untrue, if her daughter's injuries were in fact relatively minor, the mother could be in serious trouble for filing a false police report, for operating an online fundraising scam, and for possible child abuse.

     Police detectives will have to sort this all out. The investigation should include interviews of Arlington teachers and school children. A detective should speak to AvaLynn. The inquiry should also include a thorough review of the child's medical history and a background check of her mother. At some point there might also be a need for an interrogation of Lacey Harris accompanied by an invitation to take a polygraph test.

     If the story turns out to be true, detectives will have to identify the person responsible for the assault and determine how such a serious crime had taken place on an elementary school playground. 

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