A grand jury has indicted three Fairfax County Public Schools employees, including two support staff members who have since left the division and a principal currently on administrative leave, in a case involving multiple assaults against non-verbal students with intellectual disabilities, the Fairfax County Police Department announced on Dec. 16.
The assaults occurred at Freedom Hill Elementary School in Vienna, where all three suspects worked at the time of the incidents.
After listening to evidence presented by prosecutors with the Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, a grand jury handed down 18 total indictments against the three individuals, including charges of assault and battery, cruelty and injuries to children, and failure to report suspected child abuse.
“The detectives assigned to this case, along with the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney and a grand jury, have ensured justice will be delivered to the victims and their families,” Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. said in a press conference announcing the indictments.
Police say that Cylmeera Gastav, 48, of Herndon and Cecilia Maria Benavides, 59, of Alexandria assaulted six different students between April and September of this year.
Gastav, an instructional assistant hired full-time by FCPS earlier this year after previously being employed by the division on a part-time basis, faces one felony count of cruelty and injuries to children as well as three misdemeanor counts of assault and battery.
The grand jury charged Benavides, a public health training assistant who worked for FCPS since September 2000, with one felony count of cruelty and injuries to children and 12 counts of misdemeanor assault and battery.
Since both Gastav and Benavides were employed in support roles at Freedom Hill Elementary, a teacher would have been in the classroom when they worked with students, according to FCPS chief operating officer Marty Smith.
Former Freedom Hill Elementary principal Scott Bloom has been charged with failing to report complaints of suspected abuse that police say reached his office during the 2018-2019 school year.
A 39-year-old resident of Reston, Bloom has worked with Fairfax County Public Schools since 2012, and he transferred from Freedom Hill at the end of the 2018-2019 school year to become principal at Haycock Elementary School in McLean starting in September.
Virginia law requires all teachers or other employees of a public or private school to report possible child abuse or neglect to their local child protective services.
Bloom, however, never contacted outside authorities, either child protective services or law enforcement, after learning about complaints of abuse by two of his staff members, Fairfax County police say.
Instead, Fairfax County police detectives with the department’s major crimes bureau began an investigation in September after a teacher observed bruising on a student and reported it to school administrators and Fairfax County Child Protective Services.
Police learned that there had been earlier complaints involving Gastav and Benavides reported to Bloom after interviewing witnesses over the course of their investigation, according to Maj. Ed O’Carroll, who serves as commander of the FCPD major crimes bureau.
“The current Freedom Hill Elementary School principal and the school administration did report the concerns once they were made aware of [them] in mid-September,” O’Carroll said. “The school administration has been fully cooperative with our detectives from the major crimes bureau.”
FCPS opened an administrative investigation in September after the assault allegations came to light that has run concurrently with the police department’s criminal investigation, according to Smith.
Gastav and Benavides were removed from Freedom Hill and placed on leave for the duration of the investigations. Gastav officially separated from Fairfax County Public Schools on Sept. 24, and Benavides no longer works for the school district as of Oct. 31, according to an FCPS spokesperson.
Fairfax County Public Schools declined to say whether the two former support staff members were fired or chose to leave their positions, citing confidentiality for personnel matters.
Bloom was placed on administrative leave on Sept. 26, but he is still officially employed as the principal at Haycock, Smith told reporters on Dec. 16.
Fairfax County schools assigned “experienced” special education teachers to replace Gastav and Benavides after their removal and “provide support and instruction to students, changes that were communicated to Freedom Hill families, Smith says.
Social work staff and additional supports have been made available to students and staff, and the Fairfax County Police Department’s victim services unit has been working with the victims and their families.
FCPS faculty and staff are made aware of their legal obligation to report suspected abuse through trainings, including ones conducted last month. Employees are currently taking online training modules that will be completed by the end of December, according to Smith.
In a letter to Freedom Hill families and staff, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said that the school division is “in the process of updating the policy and regulation that covers the procedures for reporting cases of suspected child abuse or neglect to ensure that all of us understand our reporting obligations.”
“There’s no greater responsibility of a school system than the safety and well-being of our students,” Smith said. “…We’re deeply saddened by this situation and resolve to do all we can to support our students, their families and others who have been impacted by these events.”
Citing a Code of Virginia statute that prohibits police from disclosing law enforcement records involving juveniles, police declined to share any information about the victims, including whether any of them had been subjected to restraint and seclusion discipline procedures.
A report published by WAMU in March that found Fairfax County students, especially those who have disabilities, are routinely isolated or put in restraints led the Fairfax County School Board to review its guidelines, increase staff and training, create a task force to look at best practices, and appoint a special education ombudsman.
Parents and disability rights groups filed a lawsuit against FCPS in October over its use of restraint and seclusion on students with disabilities.
O’Carroll confirmed that the students who were assaulted at Freedom Hill Elementary incurred injuries that required medical care in some cases, but did not share details about the exact nature of the injuries or assaults.
“The finer points of this investigation are best suited in the courtroom, not in a press conference,” O’Carroll said. “The one thing I don’t want to do…is to jeopardize this case so that these victims don’t get the justice that they deserve.”
While Fairfax County police believe they have identified all of the victims in this particular case, the department encourages anyone who might have additional information or who has witnessed or experienced any potentially criminal behavior, especially toward people who have disabilities or are non-verbal, to contact the Major Crimes Bureau at 703-246-7800, option 3.
Tips can also be submitted anonymously through Fairfax County Crime Solvers by phone at 1-866-411-TIPS, by text with an “FCCS” message to 847411, or online at tip411.com.