During a news conference Friday morning, the Muscogee County School District released the bus video showing an employee’s alleged assault of a 10-year-old autistic student.
Interim superintendent John Phillips emphatically stated that no laws or policies were broken during the Feb. 7 afternoon bus ride from Hannan Elementary Magnet Academy to Easter Seals of West Georgia.
“Categorically, in my opinion and in the opinion of our staff and others, there is absolutely no abuse of this child,” Phillips said. “Contrary, this monitor is trying to protect his welfare. You be the judge.”
The video is posted on ledger-enquirer.com.
The Columbus Police Department is investigating the alleged assault. Sgt. Mark Richards said Friday the probe continues.
The student’s parents, Lisa and Ed Jenkins, emailed MCSD officials a privacy waiver Thursday that permits the district to release the video. MCSD officials showed only the first of two video “streams” that document the entire ride, they said. Phillips explained that is the only part the parents saw and the only part they have permitted to be released. The waiver, however, doesn’t mention anything about streams, just that permission is granted to release the Feb. 7 video.
Later in the day, the MCSD administration did indeed release the second stream of video that ends with the bus arriving at Easter Seals.
The Jenkinses were notified that their son wasn’t getting off his afternoon bus when directed, so they met with MCSD officials to view videos of their son’s Feb. 5, 6, 7 and 8 afternoon bus rides. They didn’t see the Feb. 8 video because they were told it had technical difficulties, Lisa Jenkins said. The Jenkinses and a friend, Richard Rogers, said they saw an escalating series of verbal confrontations that culminated Feb. 7, when the bus paraprofessional allegedly yanked the boy’s arm and slung him around to get him to sit down.
Phillips objected to that description.
“It’s our responsibility to do what we call block,” he said. “We have to block his head from being hit, both forward and behind. We try to block that if he’s trying to hit himself or others. So there is actual physical activity going on, as you can imagine, with a 10-year-old boy, who takes his (seat) belt off, who stands up, who is right behind the bus driver, who may or may not bring attention away from her duty to drive and the monitor trying to work with this child in a reasonable way with reasonable physical restraint to put him back in the seat and the seat belt on so he is safe at all times.”
Since viewing the videos, Lisa Jenkins drives her son to the Easter Seals program instead of allowing him to take the bus.
Their son was the only student on those bus rides. Two adults accompanied him: the bus parapro, who monitors his behavior, and the bus driver. MCSD officials said the Jenkinses’ son is the only student in the system who is transported with just one student on the bus.
“It’s because of the special needs of this child,” Phillips said. “We have to provide the utmost safety on his behalf while he is being transported. You have to understand too, it really is a difficult situation for the monitor. The monitor is not only supervising the child, keeping the child from head-butting, keeping the child with the safety belt on so at all times their best welfare is considered and protected. This bus is running down the interstate and running at the speed limit and in some cases it’s raining, so it’s very important the driver isn’t distracted.”
Phillips noted the student spit at the parapro.
On the video, the parapro pushes the student down to get him in the seat belt and pushes him away from her to avoid the spit, and all of that was an appropriate response, Phillips said.
“His behavior escalates when you try to force him into the seat belt, so she’s trying to be patient with him, because really he gets a reward by being forced,” Phillips said. “So she’s trying to use the force as a last resort.”
MCSD special-education director Patrick Knopf said the protocols are specific to each student. “For some students, ignoring is done to try to de-escalate the behavior,” he said. “As Dr. Phillips said, there is a response continuum. So we try to block the behavior until the point where it becomes a safety risk.”
As the student is screaming on the video, Phillips said the parapro is “trying to force him down because he wouldn’t do it. Finally he does. That was her last attempt. I mean, you see what’s happening. That’s why she was very patient about forcing him.”
Phillips was asked why the parapro didn’t get out of her seat the first time the student got out of his seat belt and stood up.
“It is dangerous,” he said. “The bus is moving. She will get up, but she’s trying to keep him calm in his situation. He becomes very excited when he’s forced.”
Although MCSD officials said the employees did nothing wrong, they did acknowledge they changed the protocol because of the incident and retrained those employees. Instead of sitting across the aisle from the student, the parapro now is supposed to sit behind the student, and the bus driver has been instructed to stop the bus if the behavior becomes dangerous, officials said.
That’s what the driver did near the start of the video’s second stream, about halfway through the 23-minute ride. She pulls the bus over and helps the parapro get the student back into his seat belt. But the student gets up again and stands throughout the end of the ride.
The video’s second stream shows the student bang his head more than two dozen times on the back of his padded seat without the parapro intervening. It also shows the student try to grab or slap the parapro three times.
“I’m watching my son just beat his head eight times and nobody stopped him,” Lisa Jenkins said after she watched the first stream of video on ledger-enquirer.com. “You do not have the actual beginning of the video, before my son gets on the bus, when the provoking starts, so you do not have a full video of the event.”
Phillips said the video wasn’t edited.
“Our staff who work with special-needs children are truly the best advocates for special-needs children, and they work despite the enormous challenges sometimes to try to provide the safety of these children as well as a quality education experience for them.”
MCSD officials required the Ledger-Enquirer to sign a release and agree to blur the identities of the employees in the video before giving the newspaper a copy.
“Two of our employees have requested and vetted their concerns about their own privacy and their pictures on the video, and they have that right,” Phillips said. “So we’re now pressed into abiding by their privacy rights as well as they family’s privacy rights.”
The Ledger-Enquirer called the Jenkinses to receive permission to not blur their son’s image in the video, so the actions at issue would be clear, and permission was granted.
— Staff writer Tiffany Stevens contributed to this report.