Parents allege Muscogee County School District employee assaulted son; Columbus police investigate

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 20, 2013 

The Columbus Police Department is investigating an allegation that a Muscogee County School District employee physically assaulted a misbehaving 10-year-old student on a school bus last month.

Police Lt. Warren Dunlap confirmed the investigation Wednesday to the Ledger-Enquirer.

The special-education student's parents, Lisa and Ed Jenkins, also allege that the employee and two others verbally abused their autistic son, who attends Hannan Elementary Magnet Academy.

Lisa said she was notified last month that her son was "having a hard time" getting off the bus that takes him to Easter Seals West Georgia after school. She thought this was curious because her son had no trouble on the morning bus.

"He absolutely loves that man," she said. "He hugs him every morning."

So she requested to view the videos of her son's Feb. 5, 6, 7 and 8 afternoon bus rides.

Lisa and Ed met with district officials in the school district headquarters last Thursday to view the videos. They saw an escalating series of confrontations that resulted in the bus paraprofessional yanking their son's arm and slinging him around to get him to sit down, they said.

Their son is the only student on that afternoon bus. Two adults accompany him: the bus parapro, who monitors his behavior, and the bus driver.

The Ledger-Enquirer has filed an open records request to also view those videos. As of Wednesday afternoon, access hadn't been granted, and officials hadn't answered questions as to whether the employees involved face any disciplinary actions.

Here's what Lisa and Ed say they saw:

• On Feb. 5, when the boy refuses to get off the bus, another bus driver intervenes and gets him to comply.

Lisa said her son "is the type of child, if something upsets you, he's going to use it. That's autism."

• On Feb. 6, the school district employees remind the boy "you better get off the bus at Easter Seals," Lisa said.

When the boy refuses to get off the bus, his Easter Seals teacher intervenes and he walks off the bus with her.

"He loves her," Lisa said. "These other people, all he needs is praise and to be told he's doing a good job."

• On Feb. 7, before the bus leaves the boy's school, "the driver is screaming that he hasn't gotten off the bus for two days," Lisa said. "The parapro gets on the bus and and tells him, 'You better get off the bus at Easter Seals.' He says 'no,' and she says, 'Then you'll go to time out and I'll throw your valentines away.'"

The boy starts banging his head on the front and back of the seat "around 25 times," Lisa said, "and they don't stop it."

Her son is "in full meltdown," and the parapro warns him that she will call his teacher and "tell her how bad you are being," Lisa said.

Then he starts hitting himself, and Lisa couldn't watch anymore. "I had to leave the room," she said.

Ed continued to watch the video and said he saw "this very large woman abusing my son. … I saw (the parapro) lean over and grab my son and sling him around."

The boy's teacher, while watching the videos with the Jenkinses, cried out, "Oh, my God! She's going to pull his arm out of the socket," Ed said.

The alleged physical assault happened while the bus was moving and his son was out of his required seat belt, Ed said.

"It was horrifying," he said.

• The Feb. 8 video wasn't viewable because of technical difficulties, Lisa said she was told. MCSD officials showed the Feb. 11 tape instead, but neither Lisa nor Ed recalled the contents. They were too distraught, they said.

Richard Rogers, the father of a special-education student in Marion County, met Lisa through a mutual friend, who suggested he could offer an objective but informed opinion. So the Jenkinses brought him along to view the bus videos.

Rogers confirmed to the Ledger-Enquirer the Jenkins' allegations are accurate and fair.

"(The boy) stood up and then the bus driver yelled," Rogers said. "I think it was the aide who got up and grabbed (the boy), a hard yank, and the bus is still moving, and I'm assuming it was raining because the windshield wipers were going."

The boy hit his head again, and the parapro didn't try to stop him, Rogers said.

"Then she had her hand on his shoulder and shoved him to the side," he said. "That's no way to restrain a child by pushing him away."

Rogers said he saw the parapro yank the boy "two to three times."

"I was outraged," he said. "I could not believe what I was seeing. … That was assault. That was abuse."

Melvin Blackwell, the school district's student services director, asked the Jenkinses to view other bus videos showing their son being treated in a more humane manner after the employees were trained better, Ed said.

"No, sir," Ed replied. "We've seen enough."

Rogers said, "You can go shoot somebody one day and the next day smile all pretty for the camera? That doesn't cut it."

Lisa said she was told when her son started taking this bus that the parapro and driver were trained to properly handle his autism.

"You redirect him," Ed said. "You don't grab him and physically abuse him. If you need to, there are certain holds to use when they get real abusive."

Asked what her son told her about those bus rides, Lisa said, "They hurt me."

Since viewing the videos, Lisa picks up her son after school and drives him to Easter Seals, but her son still is feeling negative effects from his bus experience, she said.

"His behavior has escalated at school to the highest levels in over a year," she said.

Lisa, who ran unsuccessfully in last year's election for the Muscogee County Superior Court Clerk's office, contends school district officials also broke the law when they didn't report the allegations to the proper authorities. She wondered aloud: "You call your lawyer and not the police? That's a big statement."

Blackwell, the school district's transportation director David Dollar and the school district's special education director Patrick Knopf weren't reached for comment. Muscogee County School District communications director Valerie Fuller asked for the Ledger-Enquirer's questions in an email. She said she is checking with the human resources department, but no answers were received by Wednesday's deadline.

"The district is in communication with the parent," Fuller also said in the email.

Interim superintendent John Phillips said in Fuller's email, "In reference to your open record request for a video that involves a minor who has privacy rights, we are seeking a resolution that would protect those rights while allowing the district to cooperate with your request. However, we do not have an answer today, but expect to have one within the next three business days."

The Jenkinses previously have complained about the way MCSD has treated their son. They sued the school district in 2008, when they said their son's individual education plan wasn't followed. After the lawsuit was dismissed, they won an appeal but decided not to continue it because their son's program was implemented again, Lisa said.

They also called police a few years ago, Lisa said, when another parapro allegedly hit their son, but police didn't file charges. The Jenkinses didn't pursue a civil lawsuit because they already were involved with the litigation against MCSD, Lisa said.

The Ledger-Enquirer received an updated response from Fuller in a 10:09 p.m. email Wednesday night:

"The district has followed the appropriate protocol for agencies who have a right to see this video," Fuller said. "It has also been viewed by a member of the Sheriff's Department and Columbus Police Department.

"We have been very transparent with agencies that have a right to see privileged information. In addition, a letter was sent from the superintendent to the parents asking permission/approval to allow the district to disclose the video and all the information related to the media requests. In addition, a call was also made previously to the parent requesting a response to the superintendent's letter."

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