APPLETON, WISCONSIN - Nicole Gussert, the Appleton mother accused of causing the death of her 13-year-old severely disabled daughter by neglect, called the girl in sick from school almost every day for several months leading up to her death.
Brianna Gussert, who had disabilities that left her entirely dependent on others for care, attended James Madison Middle School, but it wasn't uncommon for her to be in school only a day or two a month, according to the criminal complaint filed Monday in the case against Gussert.
Her frequent absences — she missed 162 days of school in her final year — concerned school officials, but Gussert was always able to provide a reason for her daughter's absence, according to the complaint.
On May 22, 2017, Gussert called the school and said her daughter would be absent for the entire week. That was unusual. Brianna's teacher asked a school nurse to call Gussert.
Gussert did not answer or return the school nurse's call. That was unusual, too. The school had not had any trouble reaching Gussert in the past.
One week later, at about 3:30 a.m. May 29, 2017, Gussert walked into her daughter's bedroom, allegedly after having not checked on her for a number of days.
Brianna was dead.
Gussert was charged Monday with one count of child neglect resulting in death and three counts of possession with intent to deliver amphetamines. The neglect charge carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison. She is being held on a $300,000 cash bond. Her next court appearance was scheduled for June 19.
Appleton Area School District officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the district issued a statement Tuesday afternoon.
"We are all deeply saddened by Brianna’s death and express our deepest sympathies to all," the statement reads. "The school district is required to follow the laws governing student confidentiality and student records. We cannot comment on any specific student and respect the privacy rights related to every student’s pupil record information.
"For students with disabilities, the laws require school districts to prepare individual education plans (IEP) that provide for a range of accommodations and modifications, including the modified scheduling to the traditional school day in order to accommodate health needs. We work with parents and health care providers to develop these plans. When the school schedule is modified due to student health needs, the school district also communicates frequently with parent(s)."
Gussert told police the high number of absences might have happened in part because she did not want to deal with getting her daughter ready for school in the morning.
Gussert told police Brianna had not been to school in "a couple of months," but had attended one day in February or March — she could not remember exactly when, according to the complaint.
There is no limit in state law that says how many days a student may be excused from
school because of illness, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Brianna's teacher told police Brianna had been sick with a respiratory infection in late April 2017 — a few weeks before her death — and had been losing weight. Gussert brought formula to the school so her daughter could be fed during the school day, but never finished the paperwork that would allow the school to do it.
The teacher was concerned by the number of absences but told police she had no prior concerns for Brianna's care outside of school, according to the complaint. The teacher also said Gussert had never asked for any help caring for her daughter.
The teacher indicated there had been discussion at Brianna's individualized education plan meeting in December 2016 about assisting her with transportation back and forth to school.
Mitch Hagopian, an attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, a private nonprofit organization that protects the rights of people with disabilities in the state, reviewed a copy of the criminal complaint provided by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
The number of days Brianna was absent from school should have raised greater concern from the school district, Hagopian said.
"Tragically, when the district finally bestirred itself and directed the school nurse to contact the child’s mother, the nurse tried once, didn’t get through and never tried again," Hagopian said in an email Tuesday to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
The team involved with the girl's individualized education plan — known as an IEP — also should have been more interested in the excessive absences. Even if Brianna's health wasn't a concern, the school district should have been concerned about her not getting an education, Hagopian said.
"Obviously, the school district wasn’t the cause of this child’s death, but it seems like a little more interest on the part of the school district might have prevented it," he said.
A police officer who responded to Nicole Gussert's home at 832 W. Winnebago St. at about 4 a.m. May 29, 2017, found Brianna dead and curled up in an upstairs bedroom with her head toward the foot of her bed, according to the complaint. The house was in disarray and had a strong smell of garbage or rotten fruit, and was filled with piles of clothes, garbage and dirty dishes.
Gussert told police she could not remember the last time she had fed Brianna or changed her diaper before she found her dead. She told police she had been alone in the house with Brianna since the afternoon of May 26, 2017, and Brianna hadn't been out of her room for two or three days before that.
Greg Gussert, Brianna's father, said her death certificate lists the estimated date of death as May 24, 2017, but her death wasn't reported until May 29, 2017. The Outagamie County Coroner's Office confirmed those dates.
The doctor who performed Brianna's autopsy found “there would have been noticeable change in (Brianna’s) health if she was regularly being checked on," and identified sepsis as the cause of death.
Brianna was born with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome. The condition affects multiple parts of the body and can cause delayed growth and development, intellectual disability and seizures, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.