The family of a teenager with special needs who was allegedly raped on a school bus by another student last year is suing the Riverside Unified School District and its school bus contactor for improper oversight and failure to report the incident in a timely manner.
The alleged assault took place in February 2016, sometime between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. The bus driver was the only other person on the bus at the time.
The lawsuit, which seeks damages of over $25,000, claims that the assailant “is allegedly categorized by the school as 'Emotionally Disturbed'" due to "anger issues" and has a “violent propensity of behavior.” But this information, the suit continues, was not shared with the victim's mother, teachers, school bus driver, or IEP team.
The complaint, which was filed on Sept. 6 with the Superior Court of California, says that at some point during the route the bus driver noticed the boy was seated where the victim had been, two rows behind the driver’s seat, and was holding his pants up. The driver then allegedly stopped the bus, walked over to the two and saw the victim partially unclothed. The bus driver then “restrained” the alleged assailant, telling him he was in trouble.
The lawsuit specifically states that the incident “occurred over a lengthy period of time on the school bus in a zone of close proximity (one to two seats) from the bus driver" and alleged that the bus company employee witnessed inappropriate and sexual behavior occurring, "specifically, the violent rape, and sodomy of Plaintiff Jane Doe.”
Following the Student Transportation of America bus driver’s discovery of the incident, it was reported that he drove the students to school and informed a staff member but did not call the police. At the 2014 Transporting Students with Disabilities & Preschoolers Conference, expert speaker Linda F. Bluth, Ed.D. made it clear to attendees that medical personnel and school staff such as teachers are required by law in all 50 states to report any suspected abuse to law enforcement authorities.
For at least two hours after the alleged Riverside rape occurred, the suit claims police were not notified, despite the victim's mother being summoned to school though not informed of specifics regarding the incident. The mother then accompanied her child, whom school staff said had been “injured,” to the hospital but only learned about the rape after overhearing a school nurse tell hospital staff about a police order to examine the victim for sexual assault.
While the mother and her child were at the hospital, the lawsuit states that a medical examination revealed bruising on the arm, and doctors concluded that the victim was likely held down by her arm during the attack.
The suit states that counselors, therapists and a psychologist said that the victim was “exhibiting levels of fear, sadness, mistrust, insecurity, and confusion” and that “communication regressed" from where it had been prior to the alleged assault. It adds that the victim can no longer provide self-care and must "be showered, dressed, and fed like a baby." It adds that the mother and siblings “are secondary victims of the sexual assault and sodomy and are overwhelmed with the task of caring for Jane Doe through this period.”
“We have had two mediations, and the family felt the offers were insultingly low and did not reflect the injuries sustained by the child,” said the family’s lawyer Joshua Naggar.
The problem was compounded, says the lawsuit, because “the School Bus Company delayed any reporting of the crime on the school bus and failed to render immediate first aid or summon medical treatment for Jane Doe. Later the District also delayed rendering any immediate first aid or summon medical treatment for Jane Doe.”
School transportation legal expert Peggy Burns underscored the importance of details to attendees at the 2015 TSD Conference. “Those details of an incident are greatly important whether or not you were just negligent or grossly negligent...whether you showed that you cared or were indifferent,” she said.
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In a statement, Riverside Unified School District said: “We embrace our duty to keep kids safe each day. In many cases, we contract with agencies to provide services that benefit the overall educational experience - but we also put strict guidelines, policies and procedures into place which are designed to keep those very kids safe. In this instance, we remain shocked and disappointed that the high standards and expectations to which we hold our contracted agencies, were not met by STA.”
A spokesperson for Student Transportation of America told STN: "The safety of our passengers and employees is our top priority. This matter involves both the juvenile justice system and, now, civil litigation. Given that both the alleged perpetrator and victim were minors at the time of the incident, and out of respect for the family, we cannot comment further."
Naggar said that there may be disagreement between the district and the bus contractor on where blame lies.
“Of particular concern in the suit is the indemnification language used in the standard contracts between STA and the school district; specifically, it may be that STAs position is that indemnification language only applies to injuries related to bus crashes, etc; and does not cover or apply in other situations,” he told STN. “I am guessing most school districts are unaware of this position and as such many likely believe they are indemnified; but they may not be.”
"The key to basic and essential compliance in transporting students with disabilities is a recognition and understanding of the need to provide service based on the individualized needs of the student." wrote Burns in a March blog from the TSD Conference.
The Riverside-STA school bus supposedly “was transportation specific to special education students” and “equipped with seatbelts and video cameras.” The complaint points out the carelessness and negligence of the defendants shown through the fact that the children were not secured with their seatbelts or being properly watched.
Additionally, the lawsuit reveals that “the notes for Jane Doe specifically reference 'curb-to-curb' transportation and that Jane Doe for each and every one of her enumerated goals she was to be monitored.” At no time during the incident was a monitor present on the girl's bus, the claim continues, despite one being called for in the IEP. Burns said during the 2015 TSD Conference that it is important for districts to monitor actual compliance with an IEP, adding that failure to comply can result in failure to provide FAPE (Free and Accessible Public Education). She encouraged attendees to often to ensure compliance.
The lawsuit also cites the California Code of Regulations section 14103: “Pupils transported in a school bus or in a school pupil activity bus shall be under the authority of, and responsible directly to, the driver of the bus, and the driver shall be held responsible for the orderly conduct of the pupils while they are on the bus or being escorted across a street, highway or road.”
The “negligent and reckless” district personal are cited, for hiring what the complaint calls a contractor and driver “unfit for the specific and mandatory tasks...such as maintaining, inspecting, supervising, managing, regulating, warning, patrolling, protecting, guarding, training, and controlling the transport of special needs students.”
“Children with disabilities are your most vulnerable passengers,” reminded Bluth, tenured faculty of and a regular presenter at the TSD Conference, during her 2014 presentation.
Editor's note: The plaintiff's attorney asked STN to remove certain child identifiers contained in an original version of the story but that are readily found in the lawsuit.