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Moms speak out on alleged abuse at Bellaire Learning Center - KTBS.com - Shreveport, LA News, Weather and Sports

Moms speak out on alleged abuse at Bellaire Learning Center

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BOSSIER CITY, La -

Watching little children get whipped, smacked, shoved, and hit with thrown objects. And watching it happen at the hands of people they trusted at a church-based child care.

It was way too much for a couple of moms. They're speaking out on the alleged abuse at Bellaire Learning Center in Bossier City.

It began when Jessica Ponder found a bruise on her two-year-old son's eye in May. She asked Jace what happened.

"He said Tammi, his teacher, had thrown a toy at him," Ponder says.

The next day, Ponder says of the teacher, Tammi Hilliard, "She said she didn't know what happened to his eye when I asked her. And she just acted like it was no big deal."

It soon became a big deal when Ponder was allowed to check the security camera video at Bellaire. And there it was on May 20th. Investigators say Hilliard is seen throwing a toy at Jace. She missed. Then she picked up another toy and heaved it, striking Jace in the eye.

"It was horrible. I could do nothing but cry at that point." Ponder remembers.

Police were called. The investigation was on. And soon another teacher was caught on video. Investigators identify Doris Williams as the teacher seen smacking a couple of children on the head. One of them is Jack, the three-year-old son of Christina Hennessy.

"I've gone through everything from sadness to feeling guilt for having my child at that center," Hennessy says.

Video evidence against both teachers kept mounting. In other scenes, a boy in a green shirt sheepishly walks to the teacher investigators say is Williams. The boy is positioned on the teacher's lap and is whipped multiple times with what investigators describe as "a rod."

Another video clip shows an open restroom door. A teacher pulls a boy's pants down and shoves him toward the toilet. Later, when the boy slowly returns, the teacher snatches him up and gives him a spank on the bottom.

And still another time, Hilliard is allegedly seen throwing another toy at another boy, hitting him in the head.

"Very egregious, criminal conduct," says Bossier Parish District Attorney Schuyler Marvin.

He has so far charged the women with a series of misdemeanors -- battery and failure to report child abuse -- although Hilliard faces one felony count of child cruelty. Marvin wants sentences to run consecutively so that the women could be locked away for possibly four years.

"When you're going to pick on a person that's defenseless and incapable of even stating what happened to them, that's the worst of the worst in my opinion," Marvin says.

Says Ponder, "We all loved those two teachers. You would never suspect anything out of either of them."

Hilliard and Williams were quickly fired by the church.

"We feel terrible that this happened," says Bellaire Baptist Church Pastor Dr. Randy Harper. "And we're going to do everything we can to make sure that it never happens again."

The church says they've made changes since the arrests. For one, parents now have online access anytime to the same security camera system that caught those alleged acts of abuse.

Pastor Harper also says there's a more extensive interview process for prospective teachers, more training, and more opportunity for parents to give feedback on their children's experience at Bellaire.

"They're way too late," Ponder says of those improvements. She and Hennessy are among the parents getting ready to sue. They hope their story is a lesson for others.

"You need to pay attention to your children," Ponder says. "Ask them questions about their day. And if they tell you something happened, not to ignore it, because they don't lie."

But a teacher might. Until there's video evidence.

Hilliard worked at the learning center for three years. Williams was there for nine years.

Hilliard's attorney, John Settle, declined comment for the story. Williams' attorney, Curtis Joseph, says they acknowledge the seriousness of the charges and will let the process play out in court. They face a hearing October 29th.

Ponder and Hennessy say they want the most severe punishment possible.

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