Girl in ne­glect case missed 162 school days

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Milwaukee Wisconsin - Chris Mueller Ap­ple­ton

AP­PLE­TON - Ni­cole Gussert, the Ap­ple­ton mother ac­cused of caus­ing the death of her 13year-old dis­abled daugh­ter by ne­glect, called the girl in sick from school al­most ev­ery day for sev­eral months lead­ing up to her death.

Bri­anna Gussert, who had dis­abil­i­ties that left her en­tirely dependent on oth­ers for care, at­tended James Madi­son Mid­dle School, but it wasn’t un­com­mon for her to be in school only a day or two a month, ac­cord­ing to the crim­i­nal com­plaint filed Mon­day in the case against Gussert.

Her fre­quent ab­sences — she missed 162 days of school in her fi­nal year — con­cerned school of­fi­cials, but Gussert was al­ways able to pro­vide a rea­son for her daugh­ter’s ab­sence, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

On May 22, 2017, Gussert called the school and said her daugh­ter would be ab­sent for the en­tire week. That was un­usual. Bri­anna’s teacher asked a school nurse to call Gussert.

Gussert did not an­swer or re­turn the school nurse’s call. That was un­usual, too.

One week later, at about 3:30 a.m. May 29, 2017, Gussert walked into her daugh­ter’s bed­room, al­legedly af­ter hav­ing not checked on her for a num­ber of days. Bri­anna was dead. Gussert was charged Mon­day with one count of child ne­glect re­sult­ing in death and three counts of pos­ses­sion with in­tent to de­liver am­phet­a­mines. The ne­glect charge car­ries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison. She is be­ing held on a $300,000 cash bond. Her next court ap­pear­ance was sched­uled for June 19.

Ap­ple­ton Area School Dis­trict of­fi­cials did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment, but the dis­trict is­sued a state­ment Tues­day af­ter­noon.

“We are all deeply sad­dened by Bri­anna’s death and ex­press our deep­est sym­pa­thies to all,” the state­ment reads. “The school dis­trict is re­quired to fol­low the laws gov­ern­ing student con­fi­den­tial­ity and student records. We can­not com­ment on any specific student and re­spect the pri­vacy rights re­lated to ev­ery student’s pupil record in­for­ma­tion.

“For stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, the laws re­quire school districts to pre­pare in­di­vid­ual ed­u­ca­tion plans (IEP) that pro­vide for a range of ac­com­mo­da­tions and mod­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the mod­i­fied sched­ul­ing to the tra­di­tional school day in or­der to ac­com­mo­date health needs. We work with par­ents and health care providers to de­velop these plans. When the school sched­ule is mod­i­fied due to student health needs, the school dis­trict also com­mu­ni­cates fre­quently with par­ent(s).”

Gussert told po­lice Bri­anna had not been to school in “a cou­ple of months,” but had at­tended one day in Fe­bru­ary or March — she could not re­mem­ber when, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

There is no limit in state law that says how many days a student may be ex­cused from school be­cause of ill­ness, ac­cord­ing to the Wis­con­sin De­part­ment of Pub­lic In­struc­tion.

Bri­anna’s teacher told po­lice Bri­anna had been sick with a res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tion in late April 2017 — a few weeks be­fore her death — and had been los­ing weight. Gussert brought for­mula to the school so her daugh­ter could be fed dur­ing the school day, but never fin­ished the pa­per­work that would al­low the school to do it.

The teacher was con­cerned by the num­ber of ab­sences, but told po­lice she had no prior con­cerns for Bri­anna’s care out­side of school, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint. The teacher also said Gussert had never asked for any help car­ing for her daugh­ter.

The teacher in­di­cated there had been dis­cus­sion at Bri­anna’s in­di­vid­u­al­ized ed­u­ca­tion plan meet­ing in De­cem­ber 2016 about as­sist­ing her with trans­porta­tion back and forth to school.

Mitch Hagopian, an at­tor­ney with Dis­abil­ity Rights Wis­con­sin, a pri­vate non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­tects the rights of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties in the state, re­viewed a copy of the crim­i­nal com­plaint pro­vided by USA TO­DAY NET­WORK-Wis­con­sin.

The num­ber of days Bri­anna was ab­sent from school should have raised greater con­cern from the school dis­trict, Hagopian said.

“Trag­i­cally, when the dis­trict fi­nally be­stirred it­self and di­rected the school nurse to contact the child’s mother, the nurse tried once, didn’t get through and never tried again,” Hagopian said in an email Tues­day to USA TO­DAY NET­WORK-Wis­con­sin.

The team in­volved with the girl’s in­di­vid­u­al­ized ed­u­ca­tion plan also should have been more in­ter­ested in the ex­ces­sive ab­sences. Even if Bri­anna’s health wasn’t a con­cern, the school dis­trict should have been con­cerned about her not get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion, Hagopian said.

“Ob­vi­ously, the school dis­trict wasn’t the cause of this child’s death, but it seems like a lit­tle more in­ter­est on the part of the school dis­trict might have pre­vented it,” he said.

Ni­cole L. Gussert

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