‘It is the most cruel thing:’ Mom of Nebraska City student details abuse allegations

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – The mother of a special-needs student at Nebraska City High School is speaking out about allegations of abuse.

So far, one teacher has been charged with felony child abuse of the student, and two paraprofessionals are charged with misdemeanor child abuse.

Jennifer Egri, the mother of 17-year-old Tristyn Egri, says he has a number of conditions, including autism, that require him to be monitored at school. That’s part of the reason why he’s in the Life Skills program.

“It teaches students who have disabilities life skills that they can use in the community or at home,” she said. “So some of those tasks might be like job-related skills: writing resumes, on-the-job training.”

According to an arrest affidavit, the teacher of the Life Skills class, 50-year-old Melissa Valenta, was aware of Tristyn’s special needs.

Egri noticed behavior changes in Tristyn, and he was coming home extremely exhausted.

When she asked him about it, he told her that “all of his teachers” were being mean to him, according to the affidavit.

She then purchased a recording device, and Tristyn took it to school with him to record what was happening.

From the recordings, she was able to hear incidents in which Tristyn was pushed, hit with dodgeballs, and forced to climb stairs and mop bathroom floors without breaks.

“He’s come home with soiled pants, he’s come home with his shirt just ripped in shreds and held together with masking tape,” Egri said. “It is the most cruel thing I’ve ever heard and seen, and to not be able to help your child, it is so painful.”

She said there were times in the recordings when Tristyn was panting and gasping for air but was denied water.

“He asked for breaks after being forced to do physical labor,” she said. “I think one time it was, like, three hours. And he was just like, ‘I’m so thirsty.’ And they gave everybody else a drink but him.”

Egri said Valenta and the paraeducators have also been recorded joking about Tristyn’s clothing and provoking him until they got a reaction.

She said she carries tissues in her pocket because she doesn’t know what might trigger Tristyn.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Egri said.

Superintendent Mark Fritch of Nebraska City Public Schools provided a written statement, which says the school is aware of the allegations:

“We are obviously very disturbed by these allegations as we take our responsibility to keep students safe seriously.  While the family of the student involved and/or law enforcement was aware of the alleged unlawful behavior as early as September 13th, they did not alert the school of the specific nature of these concerns until November 3.  In contrast, the administration took immediate action to remove employees from duty after learning about the allegations.  State law prohibits the district from discussing individual employment matters further, but please know that we have taken additional steps to adequately and appropriately staff the Life Skills program so that students are safe and will receive their education.”

The school district says it took immediate action to remove the employees from duty after learning about the allegations and has hired long-term substitutes to work with the Life Skills program.

Egri said that although Tristyn began recording on Sept. 13, there was over 12 hours of audio from that day and she didn’t fully review it until Sept. 28.

The affidavit indicates that on Oct. 4, the high school’s principal was informed of the report that was made and allowed an officer to view video of an incident.

The school district said it is focusing now on supporting the students, staff and families involved.

Egri said Tristyn hasn’t been able to return to school, and she believes the district could be doing more to amend the situation.

“Tristyn wants to go to school; we want him to go to school,” she said. “We just want him to be in a safe environment.”

Valenta’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 1 in Otoe County.

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