School Bus Fleet has a roundup of some recent litigation headlines involving school buses and pupil transportation, including:
- Lawsuit filed after Alabama school bus altercation.
- Lawsuit alleges assault on Michigan school bus went unreported for five weeks.
- Iowa school district reaches $105,000 settlement in lawsuit over school bus assault.
- Connecticut city to pay contractor $250,000 as part of lawsuit settlement.
- California school district to pay settlement in lawsuit over unpaid labor.
Lawsuit Filed After Alabama School Bus Altercation
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of a female student and her mother against two school administrators and the Madison City, Alabama, Schools Board of Education (MCSBOE) after an altercation on a school bus in December 2022.
The lawsuit said Jason Watts, an assistant principal and athletic director at James Clemens High School, struck the female student, referred to as Jane Doe in the suit, multiple times in the head, after being bitten by her while he tried to break up a scuffle on the bus.
The lawsuit names Watts and former James Clemens Principal Brian Clayton. Plaintiffs dropped MCSBOE from the suit.
WHNT reported that on the afternoon of Dec. 14, 2022, Doe got onto the bus and sat next to a friend, when another student stood up and started yelling at her. The other student reportedly punched Doe in the stomach.
Watts approached both students and escorted the other student off the bus. When Doe attempted to get off the bus, Watts allegedly grabbed her wrist and pushed her back into one of the bus seats.
The lawsuit claimed that as Doe was seated and Watts was standing, he pushed his forearm into her face, pushing her head into the back of the seat. The student then bit Watts’ arm in response. The lawsuit said Watts then began punching Doe in the face with a closed fist.
Clayton, then-principal, was standing in front of the bus watching the exchange. The suit claims a school resource officer was not called while the altercation was happening. One student reportedly stood up to defend Doe, jumping on Watts' back and screaming at him to stop. According to the lawsuit, Watts then turned to the student and pointed a finger in his face, yelling something intelligible.
After that, Clayton reportedly escorted Watts away to take photos of the bite mark from Doe and asked a school resource officer to arrest her.
Other students on the bus parked at the high school began filming when the argument turned physical. The school district superintendent released a statement the following day, saying the videos only showed about "three seconds of a three-minute event." He added that Watts felt the need to defend himself "after being assaulted," adding that Watts felt that administrators should be able to defend themselves if they feel they are at risk of being harmed of further injured.
The statement concluded by saying that the administrators, "followed through the protocol for situations like this very well until they were being assaulted.”
Clayton was acccused of sending pictures of Watts' bite marks to local media in an attempt to "vilify" the student, leaving out the detail about Watts allegedly punching Doe, according to the lawsuit.
Doe requested a jury trial to determine the compensation for “physical and mental anguish and severe emotional distress” she has suffered since the incident.
WHNT reported that Watts moved to dismiss the lawsuit in May, saying in the court filing that he denied excessively punishing Doe by punching her in her face. He also denied a claim that the defendents retaliated against Doe by placing her in an alternative school.
Attorneys for Madison City Schools asked a federal judge to throw out the lawsuit in April.
A spokesperson for Madison City Schools told WHNT they would not comment on pending litigation or personnel issues.
Clayton is no longer principal at James Clemens High School. He now serves as the superintendent for a nearby school district.
Lawsuit Alleges Assault on Michigan School Bus Went Unreported for Five Weeks
The parent of an autistic child in Ann Arbor, Michigan, alleged in a lawsuit that her son was physically and verbally assaulted by an Ann Arbor Public Schools bus aide in December 2021, and that the district did not review footage of the incident for five weeks, forcing the child to face his abuser.
According to Michigan Live, Jamie Nelson-Molnar filed the lawsuit on July 26 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. She alleged that the school district, Carpenter Elementary School Principal Michael Johnson, and Durham School Services sent her child onto the bus where he was assaulted by bus aide Rochanda Jefferson. The suit alleged that the assault was hidden from her, as well as law enforcement and Child Protective Services.
Nelson-Molnar stated in the lawsuit that she believes Jefferson targeted her 7-year-old son because of his disability, believing she could “discipline ordinary autistic behaviors out of him."
Surveillance footage reportedly revealed that when the student crawled onto the floor while the bus was in motion, he swiped his arm at Jefferson, who audibly threatened him. The child then ran to the back of the bus and sat calmly.
After that, Jefferson reportedly attempted to restrain the child with a different harness than is included in his individualized education plan with the school district. The bus driver reportedly stopped the bus and attempted to help carry the child to his original seat. Jefferson is accused of roughly taking the boy from the bus driver, carrying him by his arms to the front of the bus.
When the boy began to scream and tried to get away, Jefferson is accused of throwing him into a harness in the front row as the boy continued to scream for help, flailing his arms.
The lawsuit alleged that Jefferson did not know how to operate the harness and only partially restrained him. Jefferson is accused of hitting the child forcefully and repeatedly, each time raising her right arm into the air before striking him.
The following day, several students told staff that they saw Jefferson hit the boy on the bus. A social worker and/or another staff member gave Johnson written reports about the assault and the interviews with children who witnessed it. A report was also filed with Child Protective Services.
Nelson-Molnar noted in the lawsuit that no one told her that multiple children reported seeing her son get hit.
The lawsuit also alleged that while the footage of the abuse was immediately available to the school district and Durham, it was not reviewed for five weeks.
According to the suit, Nelson-Molnar, while unaware of the assaults, told the school repeatedly that her son was coming home from school highly distressed.
On Jan. 19, 2022, five weeks after the alleged first assault, the lawsuit stated that Johnson admitted to Nelson-Molnar that there had been two “incidents” on the bus. The lawsuit alleged that Johnson and Durham still resisted in sharing additional details, and simply chose to transfer Jefferson to another bus.
The lawsuit noted that the abuse was only shared to the student's mother when a teacher chose to "break ranks to tell the truth."
Nelson-Molnar was notified by a police detective that Jefferson was criminally charged with child abuse more than two months after the alleged incidents. In June 2023, Jefferson was convicted of child abuse in a bench trial. Michigan Live reported that records show Jefferson was convicted of fourth-degree assault.
The lawsuit alleged that the boy's constitutional rights to due process, bodily integrity, and his numerous rights as a child with a disability were violated. Nelson-Molnar requested that the defendants provide medical treatment, educational intervention, repair their special education policies, and pay monetary damages.
The Ann Arbor school board president issued a statement to Michigan Live, saying that the board recently learned of the incident, noting that, "student safety is always our top priority."
Durham School Services also released a statement to Michigan Live, saying it took prompt action after the incident by removing the former aide on the same day the incident was observed on the video.
Iowa School District Reaches $105,000 Settlement in Lawsuit Over School Bus Assault
The Bettendorf Community (Iowa) School district reached a settlement of $105,000 with a former district teacher and baseball coach, following a lawsuit over the assault of his son on a school district bus in 2019.
The Quad City Times reported that Brandon Nau filed the suit against the district in July 2020, alleging failure to report abuse, bullying, assault and battery, negligence, and denial of due process.
The lawsuit claimed that on the way back from a baseball tournament in June 2019, Nau's son — then 16 years old — was sexually and verbally assaulted by another player, who was 15 at the time.
The incident was captured on the bus's surveillance camera. In addition to the school district, the lawsuit named the current head baseball coach, Blake Hanna — who was on the bus when the assault occurred — former athletic director Colin Wikan, former Bettendorf High School Principal Joy Kelly, and parents Kevin and Glenda Trettin.
The lawsuit stated that the coach, principal, and athletic director all were mandatory reporters at the time of the assault, and failed in their obligation to report the incident to the Iowa Department of Human Services.
The 15-year-old was not charged with a sex crime. He was charged with simple assault, a simple misdemeanor; and indecent exposure, a serious misdemeanor.
The suspect remained active in school sports and was permitted to continue riding the bus; Nau moved his family out of the district following the assault.
School board members reportedly did not learn of the assault until several months later. The school board director read a statement at a meeting, expressing discontent at the lack of transparency by school officials, and questioning the handling of disciplinary matters.
Shortly after that meeting, the school district superintendent took leave of his post, along with the Human Resources director. It's unclear whether those resignations were related to the assault.
Connecticut City to Pay Contractor $250,000 as Part of Lawsuit Settlement
The city of Shelton, Connecticut, will pay Durham School Services $250,000 as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the school district’s former bus operator.
The payment will bring an end to a lawsuit filed by DSS against the city in 2020, one year after the city ended its association with the bus contractor and created its own company, Shelton Student Transportation Service.
According to the Shelton Herald, the 2020 lawsuit alleged that the city and the school board for Shelton Public Schools breached its contract with DSS, which was the city’s bus operator through June 2019, when the city took over the school district’s pupil transportation services.
Durham School Services stated that it spent over $100,000 to make major repairs to the buses, which are owned by the city. It went on to say that the operating agreement, signed in August 2018 between the parties obligates Shelton to pay or reimburse DSS for certain major repairs, which the city refused to pay.
The mayor said that the city held back its payments because DSS "did not perform necessary maintenance,” forcing the city to do the repairs.
Durham School Services’s suit also said that, as part of the operating agreement, the Board of Education owed the bus company $93,374.09, which it has also “refused or neglected” to pay.
The Shelton Board of Aldermen approved the $250,000 payment at a May 2023 meeting to settle the suit.
California School District to Pay Settlement in Lawsuit Over Unpaid Labor
The San Ramon Valley, California, Unified School District will pay out an over $190,000 settlement in a class action lawsuit brought by a former bus driver with the district. The lawsuit was initiated years ago over unpaid labor, according to the Danville SanRamon.
Plaintiff Christopher Murrell, a former bus driver with the district, initially filed a class action complaint for damages, restitution, and injunctive relief in April 2019, alleging that the school district failed to pay minimum wages to him and other bus drivers in the district, approximately six years after starting the job in 2013.
Murrell alleged that some requirements of the job, like cleaning and maintaining vehicles, fand time between driving on split-shifts, time to travel between work sites, and time spent traveling to acquire required certifications, amounted to unpaid labor.
Representatives for neither party in the lawsuit appeared for a hearing on the final approval of a class action and representative action settlement on July 27. Because of that, a tentative ruling issued ahead of the hearing goes into effect.
The ruling grants a motion by plaintiff Christopher Murrell to provide final approval for a class action and Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuit that he first brought against the district in 2019, marking an end to several years of litigation in the matter.
With final approval uncontested in the most recent hearing, the school district is set to pay out a $193,470 settlement to Murrell and other former bus drivers for the district. Murrell is set to receive $5,000 plus $64,490 in attorney's fees. The settlement administrator's fee is set at $4,500, with PAGA penalties of $3,000 including a $2,250 payment to the state Labor and Workforce Development agency.
The ruling favors Murrell, with the judge determining that allegations that the school district failed to pay bus drivers at a minimum wage for all hours worked were accurate. The ruling also contended with arguments from the district's legal counsel that the issues raised by Murrell failed to identify a class of plaintiffs, and that they had adjusted the way in which drivers were paid as of 2020.
A majority of the settlement, approximately $105,826, is set to be paid out to the estimated 76 members of the class represented in the lawsuit, amounting to an average payment of approximately $1,392 each.
Because the settlement is meant to make up for unpaid work, the amount paid out to each subclass member will depend on the amount of time worked prior to the district's policy update in 2020.