A woman working as a school bus monitor was arrested after a 6-year-old girl died on a school bus in Somerset County, New Jersey, on July 17, 2023. The child, Fajr Atiya Williams, died when the four-point harness that secured her to her chair restricted her breathing.
The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office reported that the child, who was attending an extended school year program at a school in Franklin Township, had been secured in her wheelchair in the rear of the bus by Amanda Davila, who was assigned as the school bus monitor.
During the transport, a series of bumps in the road caused the child to slump in her wheelchair, causing the harness to tighten around her neck, ultimately blocking her airway. CBS News reported that family members said the child suffered from a rare chromosomal disorder that prevented her from speaking, but she could make noises.
When the incident happened, Davila was seated toward the front of the bus and was allegedly using a cell phone and had ear bud headphone devices in both ears.
The investigation revealed that this was in violation of policies and procedures.
Davila was arrested on July 19, 2023, and was charged with second-degree manslaughter and second-degree child welfare endangerment. She was taken to the Somerset County Jail.
CBS News reported that during her first court appearance, Davila's defense attorney said Davila, herself a mother to a child with special needs, kept ear buds in so she could get phone calls.
Her attorney also said that Davila wasn't trained in harness safety, saying she was told not to touch any of the students who come on the bus and that it was the parents' responsibility.
Teena Mitchell, special needs transportation coordinator for Greenville (South Carolina) County Schools, responded to the incident, telling School Bus Fleet that this is, "an opportunity for all districts and bus companies that employ bus attendants/bus drivers to evaluate their training program and to include more specific training for transporting students with disabilities."
This starts with having policies and procedures in place, as well as stressing the important role bus monitors/attendants play on a school bus, Mitchell explained.
"The training, duties, and physical performance abilities of bus attendants should be a priority within all school districts," Mitchell added. "The role of a bus attendant is an extremely important role. It should be prominently noted that a bus attendant is an active role. Bus attendants should be trained to sit in a position to view all students, be alert, to monitor students at all times, and to communicate with the students on that bus. I like to use the phrase, 'if a driver can’t do it driving, then an attendant can’t do it monitoring,' because the attendant’s job of monitoring the students is every bit as important as the driver’s job of driving the bus in transporting students with disabilities safely."
According to CBS News, Davila was released without bail pending conditions, under bail reform laws in New Jersey. She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Davila is due back in court on August 28.
Franklin Township District Superintendent Dr. John Ravally discussed the death at its July 27 school board meeting.
"We are all still shaken by the tragic event that occurred early last week, and our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the family and friends of the young student who lost her life due to what law enforcement has described is negligence on the part of an employee of one of our transportation vendors. As a board, we want to convey that transportation and safety has been and continues to be a top priority for the district. Our transportation department imparts clear expectations on all of our bus vendors with regard to safety, and in recent days has taken additional steps to remind those vendors of our expectations to ensure their compliance."
Ravally went on to say that the district regularly imposes compliance "spot checks" with education personnel.
The school board noted that it has asked the school district attorneys to review current transportation contracts to see what options are available, and whether any action is necessary. The board is also working to tighten bid specifications used when bidding out additional bus routes that tends to result in hiring new contractors.
My Central Jersey reported that the bus was owned and operated by Montauk Transit. School Bus Fleet is waiting to hear back from the contractor.
The school board had a moment of silence for Williams.
During public comment, the Franklin township mayor spoke, offering condolences to the family and noting that any township resources that could be used to assist with the investigation are at the district's disposal.
Williams' mother, Najmah Nash, spoke, asking the district whether it had conducted any investigation into the contractor, as well as what its course of action would be in ensuring this doesn't happen to any other family in the township.
Ravally noted that the district has been working with the police department, the prosecutor's office, and pursuing any potential leads in the investigation. He also said the district is working to ensure compliance to keep other students safe.
Additionally, another parent spoke, urging the school board to allow parents of special education students to have a chance to meet with Ravally to discuss concerns that have previously been discussed with school employees.
Members of the district's Special Education Parent Advisory Committee attended the meeting to show support for Williams' family.
Ravally said he looked forward to working alongside the committee and holding an in-person meeting with parents to discuss their concerns.
The committee noted a list of things they wanted to see addressed, including better communication to parents regarding programs and processes, safety concerns, more opportunities for inclusion in general academics, and several other concerns.
Additionally, Nash created a Change.org petition to create "Fajr's Law," which would entail the Board of Education firing Montauk Transit immediately, require all bus drivers and aides to be trained in CPR, and be trained to handle any adaptive equipment a child may have. The law would also require training to recognize all signs of distress, and would require school transportation providers to have a plan in place for emergencies.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on August 2 to reflect comments from the Franklin Township July 27 Franklin Township Board of Education meeting, and on August 8 to include details on the petition to create "Fajr's Law."