Suit alleges vision specialist sexually assaulted Garden City students

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
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His job at Garden City Public Schools was to teach students who are blind or have impaired vision the skills to safely travel within their environment. 

Instead, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday, James Baird allegedly placed occluders — goggles that allow no light — over the eyes of two visually impaired girls in his care and sexually assaulted them inside their elementary school library.

Danica Petty, 35, of Garden City is overcome with emotion as she discusses allegations that her daughter was sexually assaulted by a vision specialist at her elementary school.

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, Baird was a vision mobility specialist employed by Livonia Public Schools and on contract to provide services at Garden City schools in 2018 and 2019 when the assaults allegedly occurred.

Baird, who has a teaching certificate, saw the victims, who were 8 and attended Douglas Elementary in Garden City, up to twice a week for orientation and mobility lessons in a room in the library with no windows and a closed door, the suit says.

On one occasion, Baird allegedly fondled one of the students in the chest area, according to the suit, which also details separate instances in which he allegedly placed the occluders on each child's eyes. Both children, who are special education students and have individualized education plans, told Baird after the alleged assaults they were uncomfortable and that when they removed the occluders, Baird was allegedly pulling up and zipping his pants, the suit says.

In December 2019, one of the students told her mother about the incident, which the woman reported to her daughter's third-grade teacher, according to the suit. The Garden City school district and Garden City police began investigating, the suit says.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office declined to file charges, attorneys said. Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor, said Monday the office is reviewing the matter. 

Garden City schools did not use Baird's services after the incident was reported, the lawsuit says, and informed Livonia Public Schools of its decision. However, the Livonia district continued to employ Baird.

The other child told her mother of the alleged assaults in December 2020, the suit says, and the mother called Garden City police to report the matter. Attorneys said the matter is being investigated by Garden City police again. 

The lawsuit alleges neither school district notified families or the public that allegations of sexual assault were made and were under investigation.

The lawsuit, filed by mothers of the two victims, names Baird, the Garden City and Livonia school districts and their superintendents Derek Fisher and Andrea Oquist, respectively, and James Bohnwagner, principal of Douglas Elementary, as defendants.

Baird did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment on Monday.

Stanley Szczotka, director of student services at the Garden City Public Schools, said the district is "aware of the news story and allegations" but unable to comment at "due to the sensitivity of the matter." Szczotka declined to provide Baird's last day of work in the district.

Stacy Jenkins, a spokeswoman for Livonia Public Schools, said Baird is on administrative leave and has been on leave for several months. She declined to provide the last day of his employment there.

"There will be no further comment from the district, as we are awaiting the results of the investigation currently being conducted by law enforcement," Jenkins said.

Mothers Danice Petty and Gabrielle Washington said on Monday they are hurt and disgusted by what has happened to their daughters, who are now 10. The girls did not know each other before the incidents.

Washington said her daughter used to love to dress up and was happy, but her behavior changed after the alleged assaults.

Gabrielle Washington, 30, of Garden City pauses while talking about a lawsuit alleging her daughter was sexually assaulted by a staff member at school.

"She loved to dress cute and she got to the point she didn't want to anymore," Washington said. "Her whole everything changed ... she wanted to wear big T-shorts, big pants. Didn't want anyone talking to her. She got very mean. She was never a mean kid. ... She wanted to be alone."

Petty said she trusted the school to take care of her child for eight hours. 

"For something like this to happen, I am lost for words," Petty said. "Livonia Public Schools, you all need to be held accountable. Why did you all let that man back into your school system after my daughter's allegations?"

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