JCPS rejected mom’s plea for bus aide until son was sexually assaulted
Louisville Courier Journal, Andrew Wolfson
Rhonda Martin says she just wanted Jefferson County Public Schools to protect her son, a severely autistic teenager with the mental capacity of a 3-year-old and the speech of a toddler half that age.
“He is just not capable of looking after himself,” she told the Courier Journal.
Her request to the district was simple: Assign a special-needs transportation aide to ride the bus that took him to and from Ballard High School each day.
But each time she made the request, it was denied, according to school district emails provided by her attorney.
On Jan. 19, 2017, a middle school student with a behavior disorder sexually assaulted Martin’s son as he was riding home on Bus 1213.
The family’s lawyer, William McMurry, said the 20-minute assault ended only after another special-needs student reported it to the bus driver, who later said he “forgot” to report it to his supervisors.
Now the district has paid the price.
According to a document obtained this month by the Courier Journal under the Kentucky Open Records Act, the district paid the Martins $500,000 to resolve negligence claims.
“Nothing in my career was as disturbing as watching that video,” said McMurry, who was the lead lawyer for 243 victims abused by Catholic priests and other employees of the Archdiocese of Louisville. “He was unable to say no or cry out for help.”
Martin said her heart sank when Ballard Principal Staci Eddleman called her and said her son, who is now 20, had been “involved in an incident on the bus that was of a sexual nature,” and that police had been contacted.
“This was totally preventable and should have been prevented,” Martin said.
The Courier Journal does not usually name victims of sexual assault. Rhonda Martin said she agreed to be identified in part to combat the culture of secrecy in the school district that “creates an environment where mistakes repeat themselves over and over again.”
The district discovered the assault in a review of video from a bus security camera four days after it occurred. The tape also showed the same boy assaulting Martin’s son on four previous days, McMurry said in a letter to JCPS demanding a settlement.
The bus driver, Joseph Gwynn, told investigators that during the final assault he saw that the boys were naked and told them to put their clothes back, but he claimed he didn’t realize there had been sexual contact.
Gwynn was fired for failing to report what he saw, but an arbiter called him a “responsible employee who made a mistake” and ordered him reinstated after a five-day suspension.
In the settlement document obtained by the Courier Journal, the district denied liability. Citing privacy laws, it redacted the name of Martin and her son and refused to release a copy of the video.
District spokeswoman Allison Martin (no relation) said most buses carrying special-needs students are assigned a “special-needs transportation assistant,” or SNTA, but district policy requires them only if a student has medical needs or requires help getting on or off the bus.
Rhonda Martin said her son had a medical need and the district knew it.
In a Feb. 25, 2015, email provided to the Courier Journal by McMurry, Amy Meeron, a Ballard guidance counselor, told Dot Malone, a JCPS placement specialist, that Rhonda Martin had requested support for her son on the bus because on several occasions he’d pulled out his feeding tube, which can require surgery to reinsert.
“This bus also has other student issues on it that are not medical but are serious issues,” Meeron wrote.
Martin had also requested an aide the previous month. In an email on Jan. 20, 2015, Meeron told Malone the boy’s mother was concerned because he had gotten off the bus without shoes and socks on.
Martin said she made another unsuccessful request for a SNTA when her son came home with his clothes disheveled.
The requests were all denied, she said.
Martin, the JCPS spokeswoman, said the district discovered the “alleged incident between two special-needs students” while doing “a routine review of security footage” from the bus.
But McMurry said it is “shamefully outrageous” for the district to say it was an “incident between two students,” suggesting that “this was some kind of consensual engagement.
“This was a terrible act of violence,” he said.
Rhonda Martin said a school security officer told her the attack was discovered when the video was checked in response to an unrelated complaint by another parent.
Allison Martin said the district turned the video over to the county attorney’s office see if the other boy should be prosecuted. Josh Abner, a spokesman for that office, said by law it cannot comment on juvenile court matters. Rhonda Martin and McMurry said they don’t know if the boy was charged.
Records provided by McMurry identify the boy as a 15-year-old Kammerer Middle School student.
Defending Gwynn in the arbitration, his union, Teamsters Local 783, said he was the only adult on the bus. Had the district assigned an assistant, as the boy’s mother requested, it “would have prevented what happened.”
Local 783 President John Stovall told the Courier Journal that the five-day suspension was too harsh.
“The driver’s focus needs to be totally on the road, not looking in the mirror,” he said.
Gwynn is still driving a special-needs route, the district said. He declined comment.
The bus route, which serves Ballard and Kammerer, now has a monitor every day, Stovall said. The boy accused of assaulting Martin’s son is not allowed to ride it, he said.
Rhonda Martin said the district assigned an aide to the bus the day after it discovered her son was attacked, showing there should have been one on the bus all the while.
The district employs 117 SNTAs who are paid about $14 to $21 per hour. It has 154 special-needs bus routes.
Even with aides on special-needs buses, mentally challenged students can still be vulnerable. In September 2016, according to news accounts, one student was sexually assaulted by another with an aide present. The aide and the bus driver were fired. The students attended Waller-Williams Environmental School, which is for students with severe and profound emotional or behavioral disabilities.
McMurry acknowledged SNTAs aren’t required by law on special-needs buses. But in his demand letter, he said federal law does require an annual social competence assessment. The Martin boy’s 2016 assessment should have noted he was nonverbal and vulnerable to bullying and sexual attacks on a school bus, he said.
“The school district was asleep at the wheel,” McMurry said.
Rhonda Martin said she has spent her entire life protecting her son and that she counted on JCPS to do the same.
“This is my helpless child,” she said. “He cannot speak. He cannot say what people have done to him.”
She said that he hasn’t forgotten what happened to him.
“Every school day this year he would have a meltdown when he heard the word ‘bus,’” she said. “He started screeching and turning tables over. He can’t let it go.”