COLUMBUS — A former music teacher at St. Jerome School in Columbus is accused of striking a 7-year-old student in the thigh during class, leaving a bruise.
Aristotle Avre Esguerra, 44, of Madison, is charged with felony abuse of a child with the intention to cause bodily harm. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to six years in prison. He worked for four months at the Catholic school prior to the incident Dec. 7 and was fired Dec. 10.
Esguerra hit the student on the thigh with an open hand for misbehaving during his music class, according to the criminal complaint. When the class ended, Esguerra brought the student into the office of Principal Jamie Cotter and reported that he had hit the student “hard enough to leave a bruise.”
Cotter, who gave the student an ice pack for the pain, informed the child’s caretaker of the incident by phone the same day, according to the complaint. The principal allegedly told the caretaker there would be consequences for the teacher, but “not until after Dec. 16,” the date of the school’s Christmas concert for which Esguerra was responsible.
On Saturday, Dec. 8, the caretaker took pictures of the bruising in the child’s leg and took the child to a doctor for the injury, the complaint states. The caretaker met with Cotter before school started Dec. 10 and learned Esguerra would still be teaching that day. The caretaker asked for another staff member to attend the music class for which the child would be present and the school obliged.
Cotter later told the caretaker she reported the incident Dec. 10 to the Diocese of Madison and had been directed to terminate Esguerra immediately, according to the complaint. Cotter told the caretaker she followed the instructions and said Esguerra would not return to the school. The caretaker, however, did not believe Cotter took the incident seriously enough since Cotter didn’t report the incident to the Diocese until that afternoon.
Cotter, the principal for 13 years, left St. Jerome prior to the 2018-19 school year to pursue a career in nursing, the church reported in June.
Later on Dec. 7, Esguerra met with Cotter and Garrett Kau, who has been the pastor of St. Jerome and St. Patrick in Doylestown since July 2017. The complaint states that during this meeting Cotter and Kau told Esguerra he would receive a reprimand for the incident. When they fired him Dec. 10, they told him the school would not file any sort of action or complaint against him.
Police Chief Dennis Weiner, a lieutenant at the time of the investigation, informed Cotter in his interview with her Dec. 11 that as an educator, she was bound by law to immediately report such an incident to law enforcement or to Columbia County Health and Human Services. Weiner found that Cotter had contacted Health and Human Services on Dec. 10 but that she left a “generic message” without any details, according to the complaint. Health and Human Services returned Cotter’s call on the same day to request more information, but as of Dec. 11 had not reached Cotter.
Cotter has not been charged for failing to report the incident, according to online court records, and Weiner has not returned a phone call and email from the Daily Register seeking clarification about that part of the investigation.
Esguerra has not yet made an initial appearance in Columbia County Circuit Court.
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On Wednesday, Adrienne Van Norman, the new principal, said the music teacher position remains open and referred questions to the Diocese of Madison for comments about the child abuse charge against Esguerra.
Diocese Communications Director Brian King said in an email, “Parish representatives have cooperated with, and been in communication with, law enforcement officials regarding this matter, and will continue to assist in every way asked.”
King said St. Jerome leadership reported the incident Dec. 10 to the Diocese. 10. King also said it was the school’s decision to terminate Esguerra.
Asked if the Diocese has a zero-tolerance policy for matters like Esguerra’s, King responded, “We are much more nuanced than that, and our schools would handle each case individually and make a decision based on the specifics of that case.”
King said if Esguerra still was employed at St. Jerome and the same felony complaint had been filed, “he would be placed on leave, pending the outcome of the court case.”
‘It wasn’t weak’
The complaint states the child rated his pain as an “8” on a 10-point scale and cried from the pain after it happened. Esguerra told police the child and another student were kicking at each other, trying to distract the other students in his class. Esguerra told the child to sit on a piano bench but not touch the piano. When the child told Esguerra that he touched the piano, Esguerra said he “reflexively” struck the student with “an open blow” in the range of 6 to 7 points of force and that “it wasn’t weak.”
Both the child and Esguerra told police that Esguerra then whispered, “I won’t be here next year because of what I just did to you.” Esguerra also told police that he knew what he did to the child was wrong.
Cotter, with the caretaker’s permission, inspected the student’s leg Dec. 7 and did not see signs of bruising, according to the complaint. The student used the ice pack for about 10 minutes and then went to recess. Cotter told police that, after this meeting, the caretaker was “very understanding” of the incident and did not want to see Esguerra fired for it.
When police arrived at the school Dec. 11, Cotter reportedly sighed and said, “I did not think they were going to report it.”
The complaint states the child told police it was “a little terrifying” to attend Esguerra’s class Dec. 10 and that another teacher had stayed with him. The caretaker reported to police Dec. 19 that the child was having nightmares and that the school counselor at first agreed to see the child before reneging. The counselor stated it was a conflict of interest to counsel the child over such an incident that occurred at the school.
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.