By Joey Safchik
NEBRASKA CITY, Nebraska (KETV) — A former special education teacher is charged with felony child abuse in Nebraska City.
Melissa Valenta, 50, resigned from her position after years in the classroom, according to Nebraska City Public Schools. She was cited and is expected to appear in court in early February. Two paraprofessionals, or classroom aides, face misdemeanor negligent child abuse charges.
Jennifer Egri called the police in October after sending her 17-year-old son, Tristyn, to school with a recording device for four days. She said she was appalled by what she heard and handed the recordings over to the police.
An arrest affidavit from the Nebraska City Police Department details scenes from the school; inside the special education “life skills” classroom, in the hallways and in gym class.
“He’d say things like, ‘My teachers don’t like me.’ I really never understood what that meant,” said Egri, during a sit-down interview with KETV Investigates on Jan. 5.
In the affidavit, police describe times when Tristyn was allegedly “left alone to wander the school” and when “Melissa Valenta physically grabbed the boy by the arm.” Court documents also say Tristyn told police that classroom aides “pushed” and “poked” him and that he had to walk up and down stairs as punishment, even though his mom said the school knew his health conditions limit the amount of physical activity he can do safely.
Tristyn lives with a litany of disabilities, including a genetic mutation known to cause sudden death prior to age 20 or 21. Tristyn’s mom said the physical abuse was especially dangerous because of the boy’s disabilities. Valenta has worked with Tristyn since he was in sixth grade.
Egri said Tristyn came home from school one day with a shredded shirt. She said she went to hug him one night, and he asked her not to touch him, at which point her motherly instinct told her something was wrong. They purchased the recording device soon after.
According to the affidavit, Tristyn was made to mop a bathroom and denied breaks when he said he was “tired.” During an incident in the gym, Valenta allegedly calls for a couple of dodgeballs, then is heard on audio recordings calling him an “easy target.” Police report the boy is heard saying “ow” as balls are hitting him or landing near him.
“I felt that I let him down because I couldn’t help him because I didn’t know. Because he can’t tell me. And I trusted those people. I trusted them to be adults and to be responsible,” said Egri.
KETV Investigates asked Jason Hippen, the director of student services at Nebraska City Public Schools, if the district feels any responsibility. He would not comment on the case but did confirm a different teacher was currently overseeing the life skills program. We asked if he had anything to say to the Egri family.
“We would communicate just directly with families if we had anything to tell them,” said Hippen.
The district later released the following statement: “This has been a very challenging time in Nebraska City Public Schools. We want our community to know that once the police made the district aware of the allegations, the district acted immediately. Our priority now is to support students and staff through this difficult time. We feel for everyone involved.”
KETV Investigates also asked the Otoe County Attorney, Jenniffer Panko-Rahe, why Valenta was cited but not yet arrested. She said prosecutors do not consider Valenta a flight risk. She said she has received a transcript of the audio files. She said there is always the possibility of a case going to trial and that Valenta could face jail time. The two paraprofessionals have pleaded not guilty.
Tristyn is not currently in school. His family said they have lost trust in the program.
“He could have died every day he went to school,” said Egri. “The poor kid, he’s had to go through more things than most adults will in their entire lifetime.”
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