10-year-old's lawyer sends Volusia County Schools pre-suit notice over groping allegations

Ed and Lakesha Hollins, grandparents and guardians of a 10-year-old Holly Hill student, speak at a virtual press conference announcing the family's intentions to sue Volusia County Schools for violating the child's due process rights after he was accused of groping a counselor, which they say did not happen.
Ed and Lakesha Hollins, grandparents and guardians of a 10-year-old Holly Hill student, speak at a virtual press conference announcing the family's intentions to sue Volusia County Schools for violating the child's due process rights after he was accused of groping a counselor, which they say did not happen.

The attorney of the 10-year-old Black Volusia County student who's accused of groping a district mental health counselor has served the school district with a pre-suit notice of the family’s intentions to sue, alleging racial discrimination and violation of the student’s due process rights.

“We have decided because Volusia (County Schools) has compelled us to do so, that attempting to only rectify this internally within the school system, within the board level, is futile,” Attorney Rawsi Williams of the Rawsi Williams Law Group in Miami said at a virtual press conference Wednesday morning.

The Holly Hill School student, a fourth-grader, and his family have denied the allegations since they were reported in October.

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The pre-suit notice states that the 10-year-old, whom The News-Journal is not naming because of his age, was “unlawfully and wrongfully suspended for 10 days without due process and in violation of Volusia’s own policies, wrongfully subjected to law enforcement interrogation and charge for criminal battery, public humiliation, accused of a crime of a serious nature, and put into the criminal justice system forever.”

It also accuses the school district of continuously denying the family from having legal representation at meetings and trying to “extract statements, evidence, and testimony from this child and his family to misuse in its appeal decision and pending litigation.”

Williams says they plan to file a lawsuit in federal court, but since it will include state claims, Florida requires the pre-suit notice followed by a six-month waiting period before filing.

She says that the lawsuit would address violation of the boy's due process rights and equal protection under the 14th Amendment, as well as potential Civil Rights Act violations.

In the meantime, Williams says they will be filing complaints against the school district with the Office of Civil Rights in addition to complaints against involved administrators and educators with the U.S. Department of Education.

“From the beginning, they have violated this child’s rights, this 10-year-old minor’s rights, from the beginning of an unlawful suspension, from the beginning of calling the police to have this child arrested based on the false allegations of their white mental health counselor,” she said.

In this file photo, attorney Rawsi Williams and her associate, Frank Allen, speak with the media about two Black students in DeLand who have accused administrators of choking them. Williams and Allen are now representing a 10-year-old Black student they say has falsely been accused of groping a white district mental health counselor at Holly Hill School.

What happened?

A district mental health counselor for Volusia County Schools reported the alleged incident Monday, Oct. 24. The News-Journal is not naming the counselor, who has opted into Marsy’s Law to protect her identity.

A suspension letter sent to the boy’s guardians says the counselor was in the student’s classroom discussing another student when the class returned from lunch and the child “approached (the counselor) to hug her.”

“(The counselor) turned sideways to give a side hug,” the report states. “(The student) put his left arm around her shoulder and then, with his right hand, he reached and grabbed her left breast in which she had to grab his wrist and remove his hand.”

The explanation states that the student “proceeded to smirk and walk away” and later “began yelling and kicking things and stormed off” when his primary teacher asked him about the incident.

The Holly Hill Police Department report, which the employee subsequently filed, stated that the incident, which was reported as a simple battery, happened sometime between 11:30 a.m. to noon.

That report states that the counselor saw the student running toward her and turned her body. The student hugged her and then “cupped her left breast in a disrespectful way,” and she had to “forcibly remove his hand,” she told police.

The report also notes that the primary teacher in the classroom did not witness the incident, but tried to talk to the student about it afterward.

Attorney Rawsi Williams speaks at a virtual press conference Nov. 14 about a 10-year-old Holly Hill School student, whom a Volusia County Schools employee accused of touching her breast during a hug and then filed criminal charges against. The boy's family says he is innocent and demands his record be expunged and the charges dropped. She held another press conference on Nov. 30 announcing a pre-suit notice has been sent to the school district.

Student has returned to school, scared of police, family says

The student’s family and counsel dispute the counselor’s version of the events. They have stated that the hug was mutual and no groping occurred. They have also stressed that the other teacher in the room told the police she did not witness the incident. The boy says he walked into the room rather than ran and after the hug returned to his seat to talk to his friends about football.

Williams claims the boy's suspension was unlawful, as the family was not properly notified or offered a hearing, and many fields of the suspension form were left blank and unsigned. She says the district has violated his due process rights regarding proper suspension procedures and meetings with the family, and has taken the counselor's word over the child's with no witnesses.

The student’s grandfather and guardian, Ed Hollins, said it was “sad” that the district continues to try to “circumvent the legal process.”

Hollins said the boy is scared of the police now, comes home with his stomach hurting and has asked him if the police are outside.

The student’s father, whom The News-Journal is not naming to protect the boy’s identity, reiterated that the boy is worried people will view him as a monster instead of himself.

“As grown men, we have to fight to prove ourselves daily, and then, you know, for a 10-year-old, for a kid to have to go through that, that’s like trying to snatch his childhood away from him,” he said.

The district did not find enough evidence to expel the 10-year-old, and he has since returned to school.

Williams has told the district that the student is not to be in that teacher’s classroom anymore because she falsely accused him of the groping even though she did not witness it. She also told the district the counselor is not to have any contact with the child and has further informed the school that no retaliation is to occur against the student.

They have also appealed the student’s suspension, but no decision has been made.

Volusia County School District offices in DeLand.
Volusia County School District offices in DeLand.

Incident is similar to other local and national cases

Williams said there have not been any updates to the battery charges the counselor is pressing against the student with the Holly Hill Police Department, but they will “fight this to fullest extent of the law.”

She also noted a similar incident in New York where a white woman accused a 9-year-old Black boy of grabbing her behind in a store, only to later apologize when surveillance footage showed the child’s backpack brushing up against her backside.

Williams has previously defended two Black students who accused Volusia County Schools employees of putting them in chokeholds in two separate incidents.

A spokesperson for Volusia County Schools said the district had not yet received the notice as of early afternoon and that the district does not publicly comment on individual staff or student discipline.

VCS previously stated that the student has been disciplined to the extent of the student code of conduct and that teachers are private citizens, so “school districts cannot encourage nor prohibit the exercise of criminal charges or prosecutions by employees.”

Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at djohnson@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: 10-year-old's lawyer to sue Florida school district over groping claim