By Kelly Nicol
CROCKETT – On Tuesday, May 5, The Messenger had the opportunity to sit down with Lyndsey Rice, owner and Administrator of the Treehouse Academy in Crockett to discuss incidents that occurred at the daycare that led to the firing and arrest of two employees.
Lyndsey, as the owner and administrator of the Treehouse Academy. Could you give me a brief history of your day care?
Rice: “Treehouse Academy opened in Houston County in 2012 as the only day care center in the entire county. We can hold up to 151 children and we currently have 17 staff members, which includes teachers, assistants, cooks, janitors, and a director.
This is a highly regulated business in the State of Texas. Everyone, including the janitors, have to have a background check, as our most precious commodity are our children here at Treehouse Academy.
The highest rating for day care centers is a Four-Star rating, and Treehouse Academy has achieved this Four-Star rating several years in a row.”
According to police reports, two teachers were fired recently for applying physical punishment to children, which is not allowed under Texas Law.
How did you discover this, and what happened to lead to these teachers being arrested?
Rice: “The child of another teacher at our day care got moved into a different 2-year-old class taught by these two teachers, due to low attendance numbers as a result of COVID-19. This teacher told me she had heard her child crying while in this other room and she asked me if we could look at the video to see what was going on. She thought she could perhaps give the other teachers some pointers or see if her child was crying just because he was moved into the class next door. I said absolutely and gave the teacher unlimited time to watch video. That evening the teacher came by my home to show me what she saw. Both myself and the teacher were shocked and disgusted to see one of the other teachers spanking her child at nap time. This teacher (the mother) told me she wanted to meet the next morning and talk this over after discussing with her family, so we planned to meet at 8 a.m. The teacher instead went to the police and then came to meet with me. I was in the process of getting the paperwork together to discharge the teacher we saw doing the spanking. The police came by and asked if they could speak with this teacher, and I gave them a room to talk in. Immediately after the police finished talking with her, they told me that it was up to me how I chose to handle the situation. I brought the individual into the office, where she cried and apologized and said she was given permission by the parent to spank the child. I stated that the law is very clear: You cannot spank children (apply corporal punishment) in child care centers. I said that we have zero tolerance for this. (It is important to note that Minimum Standards for Child-Care Centers is the Bible of day care centers and has approximately 300 pages of rules and regulations. All teachers must be and are trained, but Treehouse takes it one step further and last year began requiring our teachers to take a test on this material so they can truly understand the laws vs. merely taking a 2-hour training class.)
Next, I went to the child’s mother and told her that if we saw this happen once, it could have happened multiple times, and she and I needed to watch more video. She asked me if I was sure that I wanted to do that, and I said absolutely. We had no other complaints or concerns from any other parents or teachers, but as the owner of Treehouse, I felt we needed to investigate further and watch video from all classrooms and teachers.
The first day’s video that we reviewed was April 2, which was not, as others have stated, our Easter party, nor did we have more than 20 children in the classroom.
This was how we identified a second teacher who was also spanking children. Both of these teachers were in charge of classrooms of 12 to 15 children on any given day. Not all children were spanked, and we do not know why some were targeted and not others. No parents or staff complained of any marks on the children. The spanking took place behind closed doors, away from other teachers, staff and parents, but these teachers knew that everything that takes place in our classrooms is recorded on video.
We notified the police about the second teacher and provided a list of children involved to the best of our knowledge. We reviewed 3 days of video and then hired a computer specialist to download every day as far back as the cameras would go so we could provide the footage to the police within 24 hours to review.
The police added one or two children’s names to our list after reviewing the video and contacted those families. I requested the full list of names from the police and I personally called every parent to let them know what we had seen and done and that the police would handle it from here, as they have the manpower to watch that volume of video. I learned of one additional child and asked the police if I could contact the family to apologize, but the police prohibited me from contacting them.
The treehouse discharged this second teacher by certified letter as soon as we saw video. She had not been at the facility for 2 weeks, as she was quarantined. When she completed her quarantine, she came to the facility to fill out the discharge paperwork, and the police came by and asked her to follow them to the police station. She apologized to me and followed them.”
Questions are be asked on social media such as, why have cameras if you are not going to watch them? Would you like to comment?
Rice: “Yes, thank you for asking that. As in any business and many homes, a video system is installed to help find out what happened after the fact. For instance, if you are robbed, you go and watch the video; you don’t sit and watch it all day. If a child gets hurt, we have the system in place so we can review the incident and show the parents exactly what happened when requested. You don’t get that from most day care facilities or with at-home child care; typically, there’s no proof and no way to find out what is happening behind closed doors.
We were commended by the state and the police for having cameras so these individuals could be prosecuted. Our video camera is on a 30-day reel. So, you lose a day but gain a day. One individual stated that typically no one can ever provide this much footage, and we might never have known anything happened if our facility had not been this well equipped. We have 23 cameras in place for the greater good of the children and the center. Parents may view the footage at any time. In 8 years, they’ve proven to be an irreplaceable tool for our facility and continue to be. We cannot watch them 24/7, but we are working to develop standards for random daily monitoring.”
Another point was brought up in social media that one time a while back the system was down. What happened?
Rice: “Yes, the system was struck by lightning, which disabled the board. We did not have the funds to purchase a new system (they start in the tens of thousands of dollars); however, we rebuilt our existing system as soon as possible, and it has been running ever since.”
As the Administrator, what kind of screening process do you go through when hiring new employees?
Rice: “Everyone is screened, from the teachers, to the janitor, to even volunteers entering the facility. We conduct multiple interviews, a complete background check, FBI fingerprinting, 9 hours preservice training including Minimum Standards for Child-Care Centers and policy and procedures, and we call all references.
Two bad apples do not and will not ruin the whole facility. The other teachers we have here now and have had in the past are some of the best day care workers ever. We cannot apologize enough for the acts of these two individuals but we are thankful that a teacher asked to look at the video so we could put an end to their activities and move forward with hiring new great teachers to love these children and make their happy todays and even happier tomorrows.”
What measures have you taken to provide a safe environment for these children?
Rice: “Yes, our facility features 24-hour video monitoring cameras; a lockdown system; silent alarms; fire doors in every room; fireproof walls; and strict sign-in/sign-out requirements for parents, guardians, visitors and staff. We also have no-climb playground fences that are locked and two-way windows for parents to watch their children interact in the classroom. In 8 years of operation, we have never had a situation like this arise. We have instituted additional safety procedures, added an intercom system to allow for extra monitoring, and added a secondary monitor for security footage viewing in an additional location. We are also discussing working with senior citizens to monitor our cameras daily.
Our philosophy has been and remains our mission: The Treehouse Academy wants to teach children how to learn and grow to be wonderful individuals at a young age. We want to guide them into the future with love, caring about their needs and wants in life, and helping them become the people they were meant to be. We are here to make happy todays and tomorrows for every child. Every child needs certain skills to develop, learn, and compete in school at a high level. Spatial organization, visual memory, coordination, balance, and reasoning skills are a few that we teach here. We also provide a stair-step approach to developmental learning that is age-specific and allows children to progress at their own pace.”
Would you share any personal feelings on how this incident has effected you?
Rice: “I have cried a million tears for the children and parents. I have three children myself, one of whom would have been in this class were it not for my husband being home due to COVID-19 temporarily shutting down his business.
We built a facility to protect children – to some this is their only safe place – and these two individuals took that away from them and us. I am angry and heartbroken, as I have been since this started. The individuals were immediately terminated. I personally called state licensing, and they have investigated; we are working with them and law enforcement to provide all the evidence needed so that justice can be served. I wish there were more I could do, but for now I must continue to focus on the children and parents in our facility and rebuild the safety and security we have always provided.
The state has given us the highest possible rating for the last several years. We have the only building, to my knowledge, in the county that has both fireproof walls and exit doors in every single classroom. This is not required by state or federal laws, but something we added so that parents can be assured that their child is in the safest building possible.
Our playground is fenced in and has a rubberized floor to prevent any injuries to our children and is also monitored with video surveillance cameras.
We have been open for 8 years, and for the next 30 years we will continue to meet the highest standards in the State of Texas for our building, employees, and learning experience for the children.”