A lawsuit settled between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the family of a student who was denied school bus service brings to light questions about bus stop procedures.
The negligence lawsuit was filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court on April 28, 2016 by the mother of Lesly Vasquez, who at the time attended a district middle school. The suit originally sought over $25,000 from defendants Los Angeles Unified School District, Dodson Middle School and an unnamed school bus driver, among others. The County of Los Angeles was also named but was later dismissed.
Last October, Judge Benny Osorio approved the settlement of $20,000 and Judge Elaine Lu dismissed the case on March 19.
The complaint alleged that Vasquez showed up to her assigned school bus stop one day in September 2015 to board bus 1217, on which she had an assigned seat, but that the driver prevented her from boarding and stranded her in a “dangerous area.” Vasquez’s mother was reportedly not alerted.
The LAUSD Transportation Department states on its website that middle and senior high school students must possess and show a bus pass to the school driver before they can board. The lawsuit does not specifically mention if Vasquez was refused school bus service that day because she did not have her pass, but the suit does state that the bus driver allowed other students at the same stop to board.
While LAUSD initially declined to answer STN’s queries for clarification about the alleged incident and on the transportation department’s policy if an approved student passenger does not have their bus pass, spokeswoman Ellen T. Morgan later shared the policy for what drivers should do if a student is not on their list for a particular stop.
"The driver should contact our Central Dispatch Unit, transport the student to the school and then walk the student to the main office," she said.
Later that day, the suit continued, Los Angeles Port police officers found Vasquez far from the bus stop, “unsupervised, face down, crawling on the ground, muddy, reaching for objects that ‘weren’t there,’ and in a disoriented, confused, and delusional state of mind.” The suit claimed that she suffered some combination of physical attack, assault, battery and a substantial and life-threatening medical emergency as well as emotional and mental damages.
The suit stated that the officers suspected sexual assault and transported Vasquez to a local hospital, but the suit did not state that those suspicions were confirmed by medical personnel.
According to the lawsuit, the district and other defendants “knew, or should have known” that the neighborhood and area around the bus stop was a dangerous, “high crime” area with many gang members claiming it as their “turf.” The district confirmed to STN that the bus stop is still in use.
The suit faulted the defendants for breaching their duty by failing to “act in a reasonable manner,” denying the student a safe bus ride, neglecting to notify her mother, not training the school bus driver properly, and lacking a transportation safety plan.
The January 2012 issue of the pupil transportation newsletter Legal Routes, which ceased publishing in September of 2015, spoke to district obligations for supervision at bus stops. Legal consultant and then-Editor-in-Chief Peggy Burns, Esq. wrote that districts typically are not responsible for the safety of students traveling to or from a bus stop and must only warn about or prevent a danger if it is “hidden” or if the district knows about or created it.
"Your obligations regarding the necessity and scope of supervision can be a function of state statute, but they can also be tied to the district's knowledge that there is a likelihood of danger in the absence of strong supervision measures," Burns explained.
The May 2013 issue of Legal Routes related an incident of a New York district found at fault by a local court because a bus driver deviated from the normal route and a student was injured while crossing a street she normally would not have to. That case, Burns said, created a “concerning” exception to the general rule by confirming that driver behavior can make districts responsible for what happens to students at bus stops.
Burns also advised training drivers to be actively attentive.
"Because there are so many cases in which students are injured in connection with unauthorized stops or other driver action in the course of pick-up or discharge of students, you need to use every story you can summon up to reinforce the care with which drivers must act," she stated.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on April 17 with information received from LAUSD's Communications Department.