Summerville Montessori teacher found not guilty in abuse trial

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCIV) - The Summerville Montessori school teacher on trial for abusing students was found not guilty by a jury on Wednesday afternoon.

Police charged Lystra Zerba with two counts of cruelty to children.

Dorchester County deputies started looking into the abuse allegations at the school earlier this year that Zerba physically abused several children last November.

According to the report filed by a teacher's assistant, she told officers she saw Zerba repeatedly "lock 4-year-old students in a dark bathroom and force them to sit on the floor." The report states the assistant also saw the teacher force feed a student by holding the child's head back until she swallowed the food.

The assistant also told deputies Zerba put tape over another 4-year-old student's mouth who "was being disruptive." According to the report, Cain saw it happening but did nothing to stop it.

In trial, the state argued putting tape on a child's mouth was cruel treatment.

The case centered around one witness: Savannah Williams. Zerba's attorney said 13 other witnesses, including 3-year-old children, chose not to testify.

"There's no evidence [the child] was injured when he went to the bathroom. There's no evidence of pain. What it comes down to is whether or not first you believe these things and second whether these things were cruel," said Zerba's attorney Thomas Rode.

Rode also said the Summerville Montessori school has since closed because of the allegations.

The school's executive director, Elizabeth Cain, was charged with failing to report the incidents.

During bond hearings for the woman, one of the victim's fathers spoke on Zerba's behalf, saying she was not a threat. Zerba was placed on administrative leave after the allegations were brought forward.