BRENTWOOD -- Dina Holder's special-education class at Loma Vista Elementary School had been spiraling out of control for months before she kicked a 5-year-old autistic boy for refusing to go to circle time.
The 24-year teaching veteran spent her days playing solitaire on the computer and paying her bills, leaving instruction to her aides, a school district investigation found. She yelled and cursed at her pre-kindergarteners, many of whom could not speak. She joked to one teacher how she sat on a child.
It all culminated when the 52-year-old Holder said she "snapped" and assaulted the boy until aides pulled her away, according to internal investigation documents obtained by this newspaper. Those documents -- disclosed in response to a Public Records Act request -- offer the first public indication of Holder's behavior leading up to the May 25, 2010, incident, and include the most detailed description so far of her confrontation with the child.
The documents also deepen the questions regarding Brentwood Union School District officials' handling of a controversy that has rocked the district since it was revealed as part of a legal settlement last month. At least 11 school employees -- from classroom aides to administrators -- failed to perform their legally mandated duties to report any suspicion of child abuse to authorities after either witnessing or learning of the kicking episode.
Holder's attorney spoke out for the first time
"Her thinking is that it was a highly regrettable incident and she may want to voice her thoughts at a later date," attorney Mark Davis said, adding that earlier complaints made against Holder were "uncorroborated."
Holder was eventually convicted of misdemeanor child abuse for the kicking incident, though she was allowed to continue teaching for nearly two years. But the 40 pages of school district documents show a struggling teacher long in need of an intervention.
Since this newspaper's investigation began last month, the district has apologized for how it handled disciplining Holder, saying future incidents will be viewed "through a different lens."
Years before the kicking incident, parents began to complain about Holder. In March 2008, a parent said Holder shook her nonverbal 3-year-old by the shoulders as he signed, "All done! All done!" The same complaint alleges she directed staff members to leave an uncooperative child behind during a fire drill.
In May of that year, a parent told police that Holder slapped her 3-year-old son in the face. In her investigatory notes, Principal Lauri James wrote that those allegations were "unfounded." By June 2008, James completed a mostly positive performance evaluation for Holder.
Shortly before the 2010 kicking incident, parents of a child who had visited Holder's classroom complained in a letter to special education director Margo Olson, they "did not like the way Dina talked to or touched the students and felt that she had an anger problem."
Other parental allegations, mentioned in public meetings and attorney interviews, included a toddler taped to a chair and a 3-year-old Down syndrome student in Holder's care found wandering in the school parking lot.
Holder's co-workers also noticed warning signs, telling investigators after the kicking incident that the classroom atmosphere had been disintegrating. There is no indication, however, that any of them warned administrators before then.
"Dina had been spiraling down in the last few months," classroom aide Kelly Knapp wrote. "She had been sitting at her desk while we were doing the teaching, acting very lazy. She has been very 'short' with the students lately."
Knapp told an investigator that "she felt sad and scared for (the boy). That Dina was getting louder and louder, that yelling happens all the time. That she can't even hear herself think half of the time. She felt frustrated that Dina has not been teaching because the kids can be learning so much more."
Another aide told the principal that she thought the administration was aware that Holder had been arriving late to class for years, while a speech therapist said she saw her playing solitaire on her computer and paying bills.
Jenny Diaz, the district's speech and language supervisor, wished she had come forward sooner.
"Throughout the year, I have observed Dina doing a whole lot of nothing in her classroom while I have been in there," Diaz wrote. "She often sits behind her desk and barks orders across the room to her aides. She was hardly ever hands-on with the children while activities were being conducted by her aides. I had full intentions of setting up a meeting with (Olson) after school got out to share concerns and greatly regret not going to her or Lauri sooner."
'I lost it'
At about 9 o'clock on that May 2010 morning, the 5-year-old, 60-pound boy was cutting out papers for a project when Holder asked him to join circle time. Holder herself told James what happened next, as written in the principal's investigatory notes:
"I lost it. One of the kids who always says, 'No' was telling me 'No' again. I can't remember if he was in a chair over by the play house or standing up. I grabbed him by the arm and he fell to the ground. I kicked him twice and then I heard (aide Knapp) say, 'Stop.'"
The three aides in the class said Holder called the boy a "son of a bitch."
Knapp pulled Holder away and yelled for her to stop. The boy had a "sad and scared expression on his face" and started crying, Knapp said.
In James' notes after an interview with aide Stacey Carpenetti, she wrote: "She kicked (the boy), sorry to say, like you would kick a dog out of the way."
'Done something bad'
The day after the kicking incident, Loma Vista teacher Esme Bruesewitz told district investigators she saw Holder outside her classroom crying and unable to talk.
"After about five minutes of talking calmly to her she told me, 'I've done something bad,'" Bruesewitz wrote. Later that day, Holder told her she kicked a student and that an aide reported her.
On June 1, 2010, Holder told Margaret Kruse, assistant superintendent of human resources, that she "felt terrible about this and was scared to death that (she) would lose (her) job," according to school district records. Holder said her husband had been out of work, and that she's premenopausal, with pre-diabetes, and had recently been diagnosed as having sleep apnea. She also said she was seeing a therapist.
"I have been going through a lot lately -- I know that is no excuse," Holder later told James. "I have been losing my temper for the last two months now."
School employees and officials failed in their legal obligations starting almost immediately after the young boy was kicked.
Each school worker must "immediately" report knowledge of "any reasonable suspicion" of abuse to police or Child Protective Services, according to the state Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act. A written notice must be sent within 36 hours.
Knapp first sought advice from Connie Forrest, the other special-education teacher at Loma Vista. Forrest, who used to run the special-education department for the district, told Knapp to talk to Holder about it. Five employees began communicating about the situation, the documents say, but no one called authorities.
Word reached James, the principal, the day after the incident. Instead of reporting it, James conducted her own investigation, finally contacting Child Protective Services on June 1, days later than state law required. That same day, the boy's parents were notified about the kicking for the first time, in a meeting with school administrators. The parents called police hours later, the first time police had been alerted.
In her investigation, James reprimanded a handful of employees who didn't follow standard operating procedures. But her focus was on their failure to adhere to an internal protocol that required employees to report directly to the principal, not on their failure to follow the law.
Asked how she trained her employees regarding their legal obligations, James testified last year: "I wouldn't go over it in that depth every year. I would just say, you know, just remind you that you are mandated reporters. And under the (standard operating procedures), anything that you see or hear out of the ordinary needs to be reported to me."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.