Summerville Montessori teacher, director charged in child abuse inquiry

Authorities are investigating allegations of child abuse at Summerville Montessori School of the Arts. (Grace Beahm/

— A teacher and her boss at the Montessori School of the Arts appeared in bond court Friday on misdemeanor charges related to accusations of child abuse at the private school.

The teacher, Lystra Inga Zerba of Curico Lane, is charged with two counts of cruelty to children. Elizabeth Ann Cain of Embassy Drive, who has owned and run the school for 11 years, is charged with failing to report child abuse or neglect, according to arrest warrants.

Judge Myron Johnson granted a personal recognizance bond for both women, who are both 50. He ordered Zerba to have no contact with the children or the school. Johnson allowed Cain to remain in her job.

“I don't feel like we should deprive her of her business at this time,” he said.

The women said they understood the charges against them. They had no further comment during their brief appearance from jail via video teleconference.

According to an arrest warrant for Zerba, between last August and Feb. 8, she cruelly treated and inflicted pain and suffering on a 3-year-old boy by placing him in the bathroom with the lights out for an extended period.

“While in the dark bathroom he cried and he was yelled at by Ms. Zerba,” the warrant states.

Zerba's attorney, Thomas Rode, said she is a 10-year Navy veteran with no prior criminal record and has five children.

On Feb. 11, a parent told authorities her 3-year-old daughter said that Zerba had hit her, according to an incident report. The child also put packaging tape over her mother's mouth and angrily said, “Now you be quiet!” according to the report filed with the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office.

In another incident report, a teacher assistant alleges that Zerba on several occasions locked upset 4-year-old students in a dark bathroom and forced them to sit on the floor. She also alleged that Zerba forced a child to eat, and when the child refused, she held the child's head back until she swallowed.

The teacher assistant told investigators that Zerba put duct tape on a 4-year-old boy's mouth because he was being disruptive. The teacher assistant said she reported the incident to Cain, who took no action. The assistant told authorities she witnessed Zerba again duct tape the same child's mouth. At that point, the assistant decided to contact the Sheriff's Office, according to an incident report.

Cain told The Post and Courier in mid-February that the accused teacher was immediately put on unpaid leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

According to the arrest warrant for Cain, the assistant reported the abuse of a child to her in November.

“The abuse continued until such time the assistant teacher believed the issue had not been addressed and she reported it to Dorchester County Sheriff's Office,” the warrant states.

The two charges against Zerba are each punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $200 fine.

The charge against Cain is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.