Stepfather alleges abuse of child led to mother squirting a Durham teacher with lighter fluid

Vashawne Dawson, pictured, is demanding that the Durham Public Schools investigate an Eno Valley Elementary School teacher he alleges mistreated his stepson.
Vashawne Dawson, pictured, is demanding that the Durham Public Schools investigate an Eno Valley Elementary School teacher he alleges mistreated his stepson.

The live-in boyfriend of the woman who was arrested after squirting lighter fluid on a teacher at Eno Valley Elementary School last month has asked the Durham Public Schools to investigate the teacher who he alleges abused his girlfriend’s six-year-old son by taping his mouth shut and yanking him by his collar.

Vashawne Dawson, 39, shared the letter of complaint he sent to DPS during a sweeping interview Tuesday with The Herald-Sun during which he said the children, a one-year-old daughter he fathered and his wife’s son, who he calls his stepson, badly miss their jailed mother and want her to come home soon.

Dawson said the son told him the abuse took place on at least 10 occasions in the weeks before his common-law wife Shequelia Leonard, 30, met with the teacher and Eno Valley Principal Rodney Berry on April 24, the date Leonard allegedly assaulted the teacher.

“He told us how she placed tape over his mouth during class and would pick him up by his collar,” Dawson wrote in the letter to DPS. “This is very upsetting for a teacher to behave this way.”

Dawson has described his relationship with Leonard as a common-law marriage, but North Carolina does not recognize such arrangements.

Leonard remained in the Durham County jail on Tuesday in lieu of $500,000 bond.

Although Dawson revealed the name of the teacher in his letter to the school district, The Herald-Sun does not typically name assault victims.

Dawson said Leonard regrets the attack on the teacher, but was frustrated and angry about her son’s claims of abuse and a refusal by Berry to move the stepson to another class.

“It’s heartbreaking when you can’t protect your child,” Dawson speculated. “She felt like she let her son down. I guess she was so angry that it all built up.”

The Herald-Sun was unable to confirm with DPS on Tuesday whether the school district received Dawson’s letter, but Dawson and community activist Victoria Peterson, who is assisting the family, presented a letter containing a DPS seal.

Peterson made a statement last week to the Durham Public Schools Board of Education describing the allegations against the teacher but did not name the teacher or the parents during the school board’s regular monthly business meeting.

On Tuesday, Peterson also shared email messages dating to March 21 between the family and DPS employee Donna Hamm who was apparently helping the family request a transfer.

Hamm warned Dawson that the child had 48 unexcused absences and that “attendance and behavior” were factors that her boss takes into consideration before granting a transfer.

“I can tell you my director will not grant a transfer with those unexcused absences,” Hamm wrote.

Dawson responded that he was aware of the absences and attended truancy court to clear them up.

“I couldn’t bare [sic] to send him back and really had no intentions on doing so .... till [sic] after a while but still the same issues and more exist,” Dawson responded.

He said Leonard tried to meet with the teacher before spring break but was told by the teacher that she would not be able to do so until after the break, which was April 10-17.

Dawson said Leonard went to Eno Valley to get the teacher to admit what she had done and to apologize.

“That’s all she wanted,” Dawson said. “She wanted her to admit her mistake.”

Dawson was a little fuzzy about what, if anything, specifically happened or was said to escalate the meeting between Leonard and the teacher to the point at which Leonard squirted the teacher with lighter fluid and threatened to burn her and the school.

Dawson and Peterson have written letters to Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson and District Court Judge James T. Hill requesting that Leonard’s bond be lowered so that she can return home to care for her young children.

“I know Miss Leonard is charged with a serious crime, but this is her first violent charge,” Dawson wrote. “I am asking for her bond to be lowered or she be released on her own recognizance. The children really need their mother.”

Peterson said Leonard is due in court Thursday morning.

Dawson said the one-year-old daughter has begun to walk and to talk since the mother has been jailed.

“We want to get her home because her children miss her, they need her,” Dawson. “The one-year-old has just started to walk and she’s going from room to room looking for her. She goes to each room door and opens each door and calls for her mama, and that right there breaks me up.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645