Va. daycare teacher convicted of cruelty in 'baby fight club'

MANASSAS, Va. (AP) -- A second day care teacher was convicted of child cruelty and other counts Thursday for abusive behavior -- including stepping on toes and feeding kids Flamin' Hot Cheetos -- toward a classroom of 2-year-olds that a prosecutor described as a "baby fight club."

Kierra Spriggs, 26, of Woodbridge, was convicted on four counts of felony child cruelty and two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery after a two-week jury trial in Prince William County. The jury acquitted Spriggs on 14 counts, and the judge threw out three misdemeanor convictions for contributing to the delinquency of a minor because he said prosecutors failed to introduce evidence that Spriggs was over the age of 18, a necessary element of that crime.

Later Thursday, a jury recommended jail sentences of three to 12 months on the various counts, adding up to a potential sentence of nearly three years when Spriggs is sentenced in May.

Spriggs is the second teacher convicted. Sarah Jordan was previously found guilty on similar charges and will also be sentenced in May. At Jordan's trial, prosecutor Ashleigh Landers likened the day care class to a "baby fight club" inflicting suffering for the teachers' amusement.

In 2013, when the mistreatment took place, Spriggs and Jordan were teachers at what was called the "monkey room" of Minnieland Academy at the Glen, a room that had nearly 20 toddlers ranging in age from about 18 months to 27 months.

Two other teachers in the classroom testified that Spriggs systemically mistreated the toddlers, including encouraging twin sisters to fight each other. One teacher testified that Spriggs fed a Flamin' Hot Cheeto to a toddler, leaving the girl gasping for air.

The teachers also said Spriggs stepped on kids' toes and laughed, and put rubber bands on their hands and snapped them, making the toddlers cry.

Parents of the toddlers testified that their children started becoming fearful of the monkey room. Many started acting out, and several parents described how their toddlers suddenly started stepping on others' toes and laughing.

"That's not terrible twos. That's mimicking," prosecutor Ashleigh Landers told the jury.

Spriggs did not take the stand in her own defense. Her defense lawyer suggested the teachers may have been motivated to testify against Spriggs because of a workplace dispute.

The defense lawyer, Patrick Foltz, also questioned whether eating a Flamin' Hot Cheeto could be equated to abusive behavior and said prosecutors failed to make that case because they didn't introduce any evidence of the snack food's relative spiciness.

"Is it felony torture if nobody's told you a Flamin' Hot Cheeto is hot? How hot is it? You don't know," Foltz told the jury in closing arguments.

The Woodbridge facility is one of 50 day care centers operated by Minnieland and happens to be immediately adjacent to Minnieland's corporate headquarters.

Teachers in the monkey room testified that they alerted their supervisors to the problems there but nothing was done. Eventually a teacher called state welfare agents, who conducted an investigation.

After the conviction, several parents testified at the trial's sentencing phase about the effect of the abuse. Parent Brittany Hess looked at Spriggs and called her a "monster," fighting back tears.

Parents expressed frustration that they still don't believe they know all of the abuse their children may have suffered, because their children were too young to articulate it.

"I don't know the full extent of what happened in the monkey room, but I know it changed her," Traci Helmick said of her daughter.

James J. McCoart III, a lawyer representing some of the victimized families, said the families will be filing civil lawsuits against Minnieland "for the ongoing abuse committed upon their children."