More than a year after a contracted behavior specialist allegedly body-slammed a Muscogee County School District student five times and left the 13-year-old boy with an injured leg that was amputated below the knee a month later, the Columbus Police Department’s investigation into the controversial case remains open. But new details emerged this past week.
The Ledger-Enquirer reported Montravious Thomas’ family’s side of the story in March, when they sued in state court the Muscogee County School District and seven other defendants, seeking $25 million in damages and costs. In May, the L-E reported the MCSD administration’s response to the lawsuit.
Then on Tuesday, the L-E reported the federal lawsuit against MCSD filed Sept. 8 by Eddie Powell, who was the assistant principal at Edgewood but in charge that day while the principal was absent. Powell alleges racial discrimination, retaliation for having complained about racial discrimination, and a violation of the Georgia Whistleblower Protection Act after he leaked the surveillance video that shows behavior specialist Bryant Mosley carrying Montravious to the bus, although it doesn’t show any moments in the classroom. Citing privacy laws, MCSD has refused the Ledger-Enquirer’s request to release the classroom video.
Based on Powell’s lawsuit against MCSD and documents from the case file obtained from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission on his ethics complaint against Zehra Malone, the facilitator in charge of students with Individualized Education Plans, including Montravious, at the Edgewood Student Services Center in Columbus, the L-E has pieced together the following timeline and narrative for further public understanding of what happened before, during and after the Sept. 12, 2016, confrontation in Room 109 at Edgewood.
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Emails before the incident
On Sept. 7, 2016, according to an email obtained from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission case file, region chief Ronald Wiggins emailed Student Services Division officials, Edgewood principal Reginald Griffin and Tamura Magwood, the principal of East Columbus Magnet Academy, where Montravious attended before he was sent to AIM (Achievement, Integrity, Maturity), the program at Edgewood for students with severe violations of the district’s behavior code.
Wiggins wrote that he spoke with Montravious’ mother. “She is concerned that his transportation to AIM as well as his classes there are not set up,” Wiggins wrote. “I reassured her that it was in process. Please make sure everything is in place for him by Monday, September 12th. Ms. Magwood, please call her on Friday to confirm with her.”
On Sept. 8, 2016, at 9:31 a.m., also from the case file, Griffin responded in the same email string among those administrators: “There is no room to step up for this transition. A substitute sped (special education) teacher is ready. No paras (paraprofessionals, which are teacher aides). No materials to establish EBD (emotional and behavior disorder) classroom at AIM. No one is trained on restraints at AIM. The county must support AIM to accommodate these students. We are setting these students up for failure without the proper supports/materials. We need 2 computers. … There is no way the 12th deadline can be accomplished at the present pace. Please advise.”
At 10:10 a.m., Griffin replied, “AIM has a sub ready. Mr. Griffin will send in an order to HR for a para. … EBD support materials will be sent from ECMA. AIM will request more instructional materials. … Mr. Ron Pleasant (chief information officer in charge of MCSD’s technology) will come to the AIM campus today around 2:30 to meet with Mr. Griffin. AIM can join the upcoming east region training for MindSet (crisis prevention and physical restraint training). Dr. Kelly (a program manager) will come by AIM on Monday morning to support the student’s start.”
At 10:12 a.m., Griffin emailed the group, “Awesome!!! Thanks!!!”
Initial incident reports
On Sept. 13, 2016, Mosley, the behavior specialist contracted through Mentoring & Behavioral Services of Columbus, and Phyllis Fox, the paraprofessional (teacher’s aide) in the classroom with Montravious, filed separate incident reports, required after physical restraint is used on a student. Here are the form’s questions and the answers from Mosley and Fox, also from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission case file:
Describe student/counselor behavior and staff response leading up to the restraint.
“MT (Montravious Thomas) was pacing around the room stating, ‘I’m going to (word illegible),” Mosley wrote. “He then proceeded to pick up items and move them around, and when the BS (behavior specialist) used least restrictive measures asking him to calm down, he became physically aggressive.”
“Student attempted to leave the classroom several times, door and window,” Fox wrote. “BS tried talking the student out of his behavior. Student picked up property that did not belong to him. Walked on furniture.”
Describe what happened during the restraint, the type of restraint used and the length of time in which the restraint was maintained.
“The BS had to utilize 3 horizontal holds, each one lasting 6 minutes, with the third actually only lasting around 10 seconds as MT stated his leg hurt,” Mosley wrote. “The other 2 ended after the time passed.”
“BS wrapped his arms around the student and took him to the ground multiple times,” Fox wrote. “He spoke to him to calm him down, and I set timer when asked. Each time he was released, the student tried something else, threats of spitting/dustpan handle.”
Describe how the restraint ended.
“The last restraint ended after 10 seconds because of the way the BS implemented the hold, to avoid getting hit by a long stick and spit on,” Mosley wrote.
“During the last restraint, the student complained about his leg and was released,” Fox wrote.
Describe the outcome in terms of follow-up to the restraint incident, including staff-student/consumer debriefing and staff to staff debriefing.
“The BS spoke with MT about how the reason the restraints were used was because of MT’s (word illegible) behaviors of physical aggression,” Mosley wrote.
“After multiple instances of restraint, I contacted Mr. Powell, called to have him report to the room,” Fox wrote. “Ms. Malone arrived and remained to observe. Student was placed on sofa to await contact with his parent. Mr. Powell returned a few times.”
What injuries, if any, occurred as a result of the restraint?
“MT right leg was injured possibly,” Mosley wrote.
“Student complained about his leg,” Fox wrote.
Parapro’s expanded report
On Sept. 13, 2016, Fox also wrote a more expansive statement about the incident.
“Upon his arrival, the student was only slightly verbal,” Fox wrote. “I had to repeat questions and prompts to him. … Following his first block of recess, the student refused to return to his scheduled work period. I attempted to redirect him multiple times. Mr. Mosley reminded him that he had to document each time he failed to follow instructions.
“The student eventually started to move around the classroom and pick up items that did not belong to him. He threatened to leave the class by the door or window multiple times. Mr. Mosley restrained the student when he tried to leave the room, had item that did not belong to him, tried to climb out the window, threatened to spit on him, and when he grabbed a weapon, dustpan handle.
“Throughout the restraining sessions, Mr. Mosley continued to try and calm the student. Each time he was released, he (Montravious) tried to do something else. I attempted to get someone to the classroom multiple times.
“Eventually Ms. Malone, Mr. Powell and a female officer (the school’s resource officer, Lt. Consuelo Askew of the Columbus Police Department) appeared. Ms. Malone stayed to observe. When the timer reached six minutes, the student was allowed to get up. He immediately went for the weapon again and had to be restrained a final time. He stated that his leg hurt and was released. Mr. Mosley placed him on the chair.
“Attempts were made to contact a parent. Student was given ice pack for his leg. Student was carried out to the bus.”
Assistant principal’s account
In his lawsuit, filed in federal court, Powell said Montravious “had to be physically restrained by the specialist five times.” Powell said he was called to the classroom after the second time Mosley physically restrained Montravious.
When he entered, the lawsuit says, Mosley was holding Montravious to the floor. “Dr. Powell didn’t intervene because he received an email earlier that morning from Malone telling him not to intervene in an altercation unless he had received ‘Mindset Training,’ which consisted of the student being restrained until Mosley completed a countdown.”
After the countdown, Powell told Mosley to let Montravious get up, then Montravious tried to jump out the classroom’s window in the one-story building, according to Powell’s lawsuit.
“Mosley grabbed M.T. and pulled him back into the classroom,” the lawsuit says. “M.T., however, continued to curse and act aggressively; Mosley restrained M.T. again (the third restraint).”
Powell left the classroom to alert campus security. When he returned, the lawsuit says, “M.T. had already been calmed down and was sitting on a couch in the classroom. Dr. Powell was told that the situation was under control. To Dr. Powell’s knowledge, that particular situation involving M.T. had been resolved.”
But by watching the surveillance video the next day, according to the lawsuit, Powell learned that Montravious was restrained two more times and was injured. “Malone never mentioned to Dr. Powell that M.T. was injured,” the lawsuit says.
Child Protective Services report
On Sept. 13, 2016, Melvin Blackwell, who then was MCSD’s student services chief but is now retired, filed a Child Protective Services report with the Georgia Department of Human Services, and this report was in the case file obtained by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
Blackwell said in the report that Mosley “reportedly had to restrain the child after the student aggressively moved to pick up items that did not belong to him and attempted to escape out the window. He reportedly refused to follow instructions and his misbehavior escalated, which resulted in another attempt by the behavioral specialist to restrain him a second time.
“He tried to escape through a window at one point. Following the incident, the student was reportedly restrained a third time after he reportedly picked up a handle of a metal dustpan that he was handling and swinging aggressively. It was eventually taken from him. He was released and went back and picked up the dustpan and was restrained again.
“The child stated his leg was hurt during the last restraint, and the behavioral specialist released the child after 10 seconds and helped him to the sofa in the room. The child requested for ice and a hot towel, and Ms. Malone, the LEA (local education agency facilitator), assisted. The LEA attempted to contact the parent on the information sheet without success.”
Blackwell’s report also says Montravious’ mother came to the school the next morning and said her son was injured during the incident and was taken to a hospital after he arrived home, then sent to an Atlanta hospital for further treatment.
Lawsuit by student
Montravious was the only student in Room 109 while he was at Edgewood on Sept. 12, 2016, according to his lawsuit, which has been filed in state court.
Around 1:30 p.m., according to the lawsuit, Montravious asked to leave the classroom to go to the principal’s office and call his mother. Mosley “physically blocked the doorway” and “initiated the use of multiple violent body-slamming events to prevent him from leaving the classroom,” the lawsuit says.
Mosley body-slammed Montravious “no less than” five times, according to the lawsuit, and Malone, Fox and Powell were “observing, allowing and facilitating” Mosley’s “forceful direct pressure to hold” Montravious on the floor “multiple” times. The incident was recorded on surveillance video, which MCSD has denied the plaintiffs, as well as the Ledger-Enquirer. In October, however, MCSD allowed Montravious’ lawyers to view the 25-minute video that they have said shows the body-slamming.
The video also shows, the lawsuit says, that nobody intervened, and Mosley outweighed Montravious “by at least 100 pounds.”
The lawsuit contends Montravious “was not a danger to himself or any others in the classroom.”
Following the body-slamming, according to the lawsuit, Montravious told Mosley, Malone, Fox and Powell “that his right leg was injured and that he couldn’t walk,” but “no proper medical treatment was provided to or sought for” Montravious by the defendants.
Montravious asked if he could call his mother, the lawsuit says, “but no phone was provided to him.” Powell told Montravious an ambulance was being called, according to the lawsuit. “As time passed and no ambulance arrived,” the lawsuit says, Montravious asked when the ambulance would arrive. He was told they decided to send him home on the bus instead, the lawsuit says.
More than an hour after the body-slamming, according to the lawsuit, Mosley picked up Thomas and carried him out of the classroom, down the hall and out of the school. Malone and Mosley took Montravious to the school bus, according to the lawsuit. Montravious “was required to sit with a broken and unstabilized leg,” the lawsuit says, and Gisela Huggins, the driver, didn’t provide medical treatment or report the injury.
Emails after the incident
Here are more emails obtained from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission from the case file of Powell’s complaint:
On Sept. 12, 2016, at 4:39 p.m., Wiggins emailed Griffin, “Any problems today that I need to be made aware?”
On Sept. 13, 2016, at 8:07 a.m., Griffin replied and included Malone in the email, “I’m on a religious holiday. I was informed that a student was restrained. Mrs. Malone, please provide details.”
At 8:24 a.m., Malone replied, “Attached is the incident report that was completed by Bryant Mosley. Mr. Mosley is the MindSet trained behavior special who is contracted by MCSD.
“Based on the information provided by the teacher and the behavior specialist, the student attempted to leave the classroom, pacing and picking up items at approximately 2 p.m. Mr. Mosley attempted to verbally deescalate the student prior to using restraint. I attempted to call the parent, but all numbers on file and in Infinite Campus are disconnected. Administration and the SRO (the school resource officer, Askew) were called to the classroom. Student was released on the bus. Please let me know if any further information is needed.”
At 8:43 a.m., Malone emailed the administrators, “Mrs. Thomas reported to AIM this morning stating that her son was injured during the restraint process. Mom is reporting that she took the student to Midtown Medical Center and he was airlifted to Egleston Hospital in Atlanta. … Please advise.”
At 8:54 a.m., Malone again emailed the administrators, “Attached is the medical information provided by Mrs. Thomas. She is currently waiting in the front office to speak with admin.”
At 9:06 a.m., Malone added Powell to the group email and wrote, “Dr. Powell, please review emails below. You were inadvertently left off the communications when responding to the initial email.”
At 9:45 a.m., Powell replied, “Ms. Malone, I concur that I was not apprised of the situation discussed below and as such defer any disposition of the related incidence occurring on 12 September 2016 not to include processing of required documents to Mr. Griffin when he returns on Thursday. I have attached the incident report that I received from you this morning. Again, as one of the administrators at AIM, I don’t understand the reason I was not informed.”
At 9:54 a.m., Wiggins, the region chief, emailed the group, “Has anybody reached out to the mother to check on the condition of the child?”
At 9:58 a.m., Malone replied, “Mom came to AIM this morning to speak with admin. Mrs. (Robin) Barber (special-education program specialist) was able to catch up with mom at the gas station across the street.”
Complaint, letter of reprimand from Powell
On Sept. 19, 2016, Powell filed the complaint with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission against Malone. The complaint accuses Malone of breaching the following standards in the Code of Ethics for Educators: conduct with students, honesty, required reports and professional conduct.
In the complaint, Powell copied the Sept. 14 letter of reprimand he wrote to Malone. His investigation of the incident, which included surveillance video, revealed that Malone “had knowledge that the student was in pain upon his leaving,” Powell wrote. “… The child requested for ice and a hot towel and you, based on your statement, assisted the student because he was in pain. You knew the student was in pain and had sustained an injury but failed to inform the administrator as required by policy. Your handling of this situation was improper, unprofessional and must not be repeated.”
On or about Oct. 4, 2016, Powell’s lawsuit says, Melanie Slaton, one of the lawyers representing MCSD, visited AIM and asked Powell to remove the “letter of concern” he issued Malone. If he refused, the lawsuit says, “one would be written on him.”
Subsequently, the lawsuit says, “Dr. Powell started experiencing ongoing harassment from the school principal, Reginald Griffin, and MCSD.” The environment caused Powell “intense and severe stress,” the lawsuit says, and his doctor placed him on medical leave on Nov. 18, 2016.
On Oct. 18, 2016, after multiple operations to save his right leg, Montravious undergoes a below-the-knee amputation.
On Nov. 14, 2016, the state’s standards commission informed Powell that his complaint against Malone was remanded to MCSD superintendent David Lewis to determine whether a violation occurred.
Communications between Powell and MCSD
On or about Jan. 3, 2017, Powell told MCSD human resources chief Kathy Tessin that the work environment at AIM contributed to his medical condition, the lawsuit says. He returned to AIM on or about Jan. 10, 2017, and began “working as an administrator on assignment with Student Services,” the lawsuit says.
On or about May 3, 2017, the lawsuit says, Tessin told Powell, without explanation, he was being demoted to school counselor, his pay would be cut and “he should seek employment in another county if he wanted to be an administrator.” Six days later, Powell received a 4.6 out of 5 on his annual performance evaluation, “which denotes that he exceeds expectations as an administrator,” the lawsuit says.
On or about May 10, 2017, Powell sent Lewis a certified letter requesting a hearing with the school board to address his grievances, the lawsuit says. Lewis told him six days later he had no right to file a grievance about his demotion. The superintendent also told Powell he wanted to meet again and “make it right,” the lawsuit says.
On or about May 18, 2017, Lewis rescinded the demotion and read Powell a letter stating he would give him “one more opportunity” in a leadership position, the lawsuit said. But the superintendent also stated, according to the lawsuit, “I expect to not have law enforcement called in the future over interpersonal conflict or perceived verbal threats. This has occurred three times in the past prior to your assignment to AIM. I will not have this occur again in the future.”
Lewis told Powell in the conclusion of his May 18 letter, “I will hold you accountable to improved human resource management in this next assignment, and I will expect your principal and Regional Chief to be candid with you on any behavior that is counterproductive to my goal of effective leadership in this school system.”
These statements, the lawsuit says, “reinforced” Powell’s understanding that he was being placed on probation and being monitored.
On May 24, 2017, Powell filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a complaint accusing MCSD of racially discriminating and retaliating against him.
On June 6, 2017, the EEOC informed Powell in a letter that “your allegations were not supported” and “you will have to file a private lawsuit if you want to continue to challenge the alleged discrimination.”
MCSD reassigned Powell from AIM to the assistant principal position shared between Dorothy Height and Fox elementary schools, according to the personnel report attached to the agenda for the school board’s July 2017 meeting. But now he is listed on MCSD’s website as an assistant principal at Jordan Vocational High School.
On Aug. 11, 2017, Tessin wrote to Paul Shaw, the director of the standards commission’s ethics division: “Based on the information available to the District at this time, we are not aware of a basis to believe that there has been a violation of the Code of Ethics by Ms. Zehra Malone.”