ST. HELENA — A local father is criticizing the St. Helena Unified School District’s response to an alleged assault that took place at the high school, but the facts of the case remain unclear.
Jorge Montanez believes his son, who is a special-needs student, was repeatedly punched in the head by another student “out of the blue” during lunch on Friday, Nov. 2. Montanez said he suspects that his son might have been talking to the perpetrator’s girlfriend earlier.
Montanez says he knows who’s responsible, but he’s upset that the district hasn’t suspended that student.
“My son needs to be safe at school, but for some reason the school doesn’t want to go against this kid,” said Montanez, who added he’s seeking legal advice.
But school administrators and St. Helena police say they’ve thoroughly investigated the incident and are still unsure who hit Montanez’s son — or even whether the incident took place at school.
“We could find nobody who saw it happen or said it happened, except for [the alleged victim],” Assistant Superintendent Cindy Toews said. “It’s a he-said, she-said.”
Montanez, who brought the incident to the school board’s attention on Nov. 8, told the Star he was unaware of his son’s injury at first. The boy slept in unusually late on Saturday, Nov. 3, and Montanez finally noticed a bruise on the side of his son’s face on Monday morning, while he was shaving him.
Montanez took his son to Queen of the Valley Medical Center and filed a report with the St. Helena Police Department. Montanez said his son was diagnosed with a concussion, but Toews and Sgt. Chris Hartley said the doctor’s report actually indicated a contusion, or a bruise.
Toews said it’s puzzling that Montanez’s son didn’t indicate anything was wrong on Friday afternoon, after the attack allegedly occurred. Teachers and specialists familiar with the boy say he would have been very upset if he’d been attacked.
“That’s not to say nothing happened, but his behavior was not consistent with what you’d expect if something had happened,” Toews said.
Hartley said police conducted a full investigation, but Montanez’s son couldn’t definitively identify a suspect.
“Because of his disability, he would pick out anybody who walked by, which made the investigation extremely difficult,” Hartley said. “It’s obvious that something happened.”
Hartley said that in separate interviews, the boy indicated two different students who he said were responsible for the attack. The first was a student “who just happened to be walking by,” Hartley said.
The second student Montanez identified was a special-needs student who couldn’t have been prosecuted anyway because he’s legally incapable of forming the intent to assault someone, Hartley said.
Montanez acknowledged that his son has a problem with names, but said he can still remember faces and point them out. Montanez maintains that the first student his son pointed to was the attacker. He says a girl allegedly saw the student attack his son, but later changed her story because she didn’t want to get involved.
Hartley said police were unable to find any witnesses.
Toews said the district conducted a lengthy investigation involving her, SHHS Principal Julie Synyard, Assistant Principal Ben Scinto, various teachers, paraeducators, coaches, students and the alleged victim’s family.
The first boy Montanez’s son pointed out has never been associated with that kind of behavior, Toews said. Each student the boy’s family has identified as a possible witness has told administrators and police that they didn’t see anything, she said.
It’s also possible that Montanez’s son is too scared to identify the true attacker, Toews said.
“[Montanez] is upset because he wants one particular student disciplined,” Toews said. “He believes his son couldn’t possibly be wrong. … But that’s not how the system works.”
The district has procedures in place to deal with bullying. Toews said the system still isn’t perfect, but the district has tightened up its policies this school year and trained district staff in how to respond to bullying.
Toews said bullying typically begins at the elementary school and peaks in middle school. By the time students get to the high school, bullying becomes less common because students “are looking ahead to where they’re going in life,” she said.
Toews said there’s only been one fight at the high school in the past two years. Such incidents are typically the subject of chatter on Facebook, but Toews said there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary following the alleged incident.
“If this student was hit, we would want to punish whoever did it,” Toews said. “But we can’t do anything until we have some evidence.”
Montanez said his son had trouble last year with a particular bully who allegedly stole his cellphone and some money. Montanez alerted the school district, and the student never bothered Montanez’s son again.
Yet verbal harassment has been an ongoing problem, Montanez said.
“If I went to the school every time someone called my son a retard or a geek, I’d be there every day,” he said.