Mother upset about school system's response to teacher assistant cutting daughter's hair

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 2, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
CHINA GROVE — The mother of a Millbridge Elementary School student with Down syndrome said she’s frustrated by the lack of response from school officials following a haircut a teacher assistant gave her daughter during class.
Jessica Stirewalt said teacher assistant Monica Becker called Sept. 21 to let her know she had trimmed 7-year-old Jesslynn Poole’s long brown locks.
“Of course, I got mad and asked how much and she said about 4 inches,” Stirewalt said. “I asked why and she said she was eating and got food matted in it.”
But stories about why the hair was snipped have been conflicting.
“She also wrote a letter home that day that said Jesslynn kept taking her hair down so she put it up, and when she did she trimmed it,” Stirewalt said. “That’s a different story than what she told me over the phone.”
When Jesslynn arrived home from school that day, Stirewalt said her hair was actually about 8 inches shorter.
“Her hair was down past her butt, now it’s up around her shoulders,” she said.
Stirewalt said Becker should have called her before taking the scissors to Jesslyn’s locks.
“I was very upset because it’s a total change,” she said. “My child’s hair was part of her personality.”
Jesslynn had never had more than a couple of inches snipped from her hair at one time, Stirewalt said.
“There was a reason why her hair was long, she liked it long,” she said. “Her daddy always cut her hair, so I’m not sure how she reacted when someone else was doing it. She doesn’t like people brushing her hair or messing with her hair.”
Jesslynn’s hair is still choppy and uneven from the haircut.
“We have not done anything to it because we want everything to be the same in case we decide to get a lawyer,” Stirewalt said.
Stirewalt said she’s still deciding whether to press charges against Becker, but has not done so at this time.
“Everyone keeps telling me they’re sorry, but that’s not good enough,” she said.
School system reacts
Stirewalt said Millbridge Principal Christopher Smith told her action would be taken, but the incident hasn’t been addressed.
“He said there was going to be a meeting, but I never heard anything back from him,” she said.
Stirewalt said she’s also left messages with school board members, but no one has called her back.
“It feels like it’s not a big deal to the school and the school board, but it’s a big deal to us,” she said. “It just hurts my feelings and I want something done. It feels like nothing is being done.”
School officials have been quiet about the incident.
“We cannot address or direct any response to a specific incident that is legally protected by student and personnel confidentiality,” district spokeswoman Rita Foil said.
When a Post reporter called the school, Smith declined to comment.
Foil said Becker is still employed as a teacher assistant and bus driver at Millbridge, a job she has had since August 2011.
Becker worked for the school system about seven months several years ago. She was an exceptional children’s teacher assistant starting at the end of October 2007 and resigning in early May 2008.
School board chairman Dr. Jim Emerson said he doesn’t know much about the situation.
“I’ve gotten a couple of emails about it, but I don’t know what the circumstances were,” he said. “Before I make a comment, I would rather know what’s going on.”
Board member Bryce Beard says the district will have to investigate the incident.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I don’t even know if any of that stuff is the truth. It’s like court; somebody has made an accusation, so until I hear both sides I better not comment.”
Board member Kay Wright Norman said she’s confident school officials will get to the bottom of the incident.
“I think we have to just let the system play itself out,” she said. “When they investigate they’ll find out the circumstances.”
Stirewalt wants Becker fired
Stirewalt said she wants Becker fired from her job as a teacher assistant. “I just want her out of the classroom,” she said. “I want my daughter to be taken care of by people who actually care. If I was babysitting somebody’s kids and I called and said I cut off their daughter’s hair, they would flip out on me.”
Jesslynn has continued to attend Millbridge despite the incident.
“One of the main reasons she’s still there is because we really do like her teacher, Mrs. Miller,” Stirewalt said. “Jesslynn had her for two years at Shive, and she’s great.”
Stirewalt said she does not believe the incident would have happened in a typical classroom setting.
“Just because she has Down syndrome doesn’t make it OK to cut her hair,” she said. “She used to brush her hair, play in front of the mirror and every time she saw a pretty girl on TV she would mess with her hair. Now she barely touches it.”
Stirewalt said a sudden change like a drastic haircut can be traumatizing to a child with special needs.
“Some people might say it’s just hair and it’s going to grow back, but they don’t understand,” she said.
A Post reporter could not reach Becker for comment Monday.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.