When parents dropped their toddlers off at the "monkey room" at Minnieland Academy in Virginia, they noticed the children's personalities change. The two-year-olds became aggressive, violent and clingy, trying as hard as they could not to be left at the school.
Moms and dads, many of them new to parenting, chalked it up to the "terrible twos" — not knowing the unthinkable was happening. Twin sisters were encouraged to fight each other in what a prosecutor called "baby fight club." Teachers bit kids' fingers or stomped on their toes and laughed about it.
On Thursday, a jury convicted Kierra Spriggs, 26, of Woodbridge, Va., on four felony counts of child cruelty and two misdemeanour counts of assault and battery. She could face up to three years in prison. In January, the lead teacher in the monkey room, Sarah Jordan, was convicted on similar charges. Both are in jail while they await sentencing in May.
Nearly three weeks of testimony in the two trials shed no light on the fundamental question of why two seemingly normal adults would delight in abusing and tormenting a classroom of children.
Adam Smith, a parent whose daughter was abused, said he had no idea what was going on.
"It plagues me as a parent. Time and time again I handed my child to Sarah Jordan with no inclination" that she was mistreating the toddlers. "I can't even fathom what would make a person think this was OK."
The details of the mistreatment were at times bizarre. Spriggs snapped rubber bands wrapped around kids' hands and even fed a Flamin' Hot Cheeto to one child, leaving the girl gasping for air, her face beet red.
Smith said his daughter still has nightmares. She used to be a happily babbling toddler before enrolling at Minnieland, and suddenly stopped talking almost entirely within a few weeks of attending. Even now, Adams said, his almost five-year-old daughter scopes her surroundings warily.
"It is very obvious to watch her check out her environment" in a new setting, he said.
During the trial, Jordan denied any role in the abuse. Spriggs did not testify, but her lawyer suggested the allegations arose out of workplace conflicts between Spriggs and the teachers who reported and testified about the abuse.
James J. McCoart III, who represents several of the Minnieland victims' families, said he expects to file lawsuits against the academy. He said the parents have been waiting three years for the trials to answer their questions. Instead, testimony showed that teachers who reported the abuse to their supervisors at the Woodbridge facility were ignored.
It was not until the allegations were taken to Minnieland's corporate office that Child and Protective Services was contacted. Minnieland has more than 50 sites throughout Virginia, but the corporate headquarters are adjacent to the Woodbridge facility where the abuse took place.
Minnieland, in a statement, said it reported the allegations in August 2013, once corporate management became aware.
"To our knowledge, this was the first time any teacher at The Glen reported such incidents to management. Minnieland staff and leadership fully co-operated with the authorities in pursing justice in this matter," the company said.