Piedad Meza Cruz, 46, was arrested Wednesday by Palm Beach County deputies and charged with child abuse

By Harriet Sokmensuer
March 19, 2018 07:24 PM

A Florida preschool is defending a former teacher accused of force-feeding a toddler, claiming she was trying to save the girl from choking.

Piedad Meza Cruz, 46, was arrested Wednesday by Palm Beach County deputies and charged with child abuse following an eight-month-long investigation into the alleged incident that occurred last summer, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by PEOPLE.

Meza Cruz is accused of pushing a 1-year-old child’s head back and force feeding her at The King’s Academy Preschool in Royal Palm Beach on July 27.

The incident was brought to the attention of school officials when the child’s mother emailed the school director photos of her daughter with bruises on her cheeks.

When questioned by school officials, Meza Cruz said the girl had been choking and she was trying to get the food out of her mouth. A teacher’s assistant in the room with Meza Cruz told officials she heard her yell, “Open! Open!” as she tried to save the toddler, who was crying loudly, the affidavit states.

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Piedad MezacruzCredit: Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office
Piedad Mezacruz
| Credit: Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office

Security surveillance cameras captured the incident on video, however, Florida authorities and school officials disagree on what the footage shows.

Investigators with the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office allege the footage shows Meza Cruz clearly pushing the child’s head back and force feeding her “at least twice,” according to the affidavit.

However, King’s Academy Preschool claims the video corroborates Meza Cruz’s story.

“The videotape clearly shows that the child was choking and the teacher did not force feed that child in any way and she went and saved the child from choking and successfully dislodged what she was choking on and that was it,” the preschool’s attorney, Phil Valente, tells PEOPLE.

Meza Cruz and the teacher’s assistant were both terminated for not following school safety and standards, Valente said.

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During the investigation, the child’s family filed a lawsuit against the school, according to WPTV. They told the station they plan on going through with the suit despite the recent criminal charges.

“To hear finally after 8 months that she was arrested, now I know she’ll never be able to get a teaching job it was, I’ll tell you, I lost so much sleep every night just cause I’d get so frustrated thinking about it,” Jamie Cleary, the child’s mother, told the station.

Meza Cruz does not have a record of violence, according to WPTV. She was released on a $3,000 bond from Palm Beach County Jail on March 14, according to jail records. It is unclear at this time who is representing her.