Northampton Press

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Lawsuit filed against NASD, IU-20

Wednesday, September 19, 2018 by BERNIE O’HARE Special to The Press in Local News

Court documents claim aide had back turned during alleged 2017 assault

Northampton Area School District and Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 face a federal lawsuit based on the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old female student with special needs.

The complaint, filed Sept. 11 by Philadelphia Attorney Michael D. Shaffer, is based on incidents that allegedly occurred in December of 2017.

The student is identified in the complaint only by her initials. She and her parents, also identified only by their initials, are seeking more than $150,000 in damages.

The complaint alleges during the week of Dec. 18, 2017, a 12- or 13-year-old male student with special needs, identified only by his initials, was seated on the bus next to the female student and began to fondle her private parts. He then unbuttoned his pants and had her perform oral sex in front of all the bus passengers, including a monitor who allegedly failed to see what was happening because she was seated in the front and speaking to the driver, according to the complaint.

According to court documents, “The aide always had her back to the students and rarely observed the students.”

The complaint charges that after this incident, the male student wanted the female student to have sex with him, but she refused. As a result, he shunned her and began to mock her. This upset her, the complaint continued, and she had a manic episode Dec. 21, 2017, and tried to open the doors of the moving bus. Once it stopped, she ran off.

The following day, the female student told school officials what had happened. She reported students continued to allegedly torment and mock her, which prompted her to attempt suicide twice.

Shaffer contends both the school district and IU-20 “violated [the female student’s] substantive due process rights to bodily integrity.” He added that the girl’s tender age, as well as her mental and psychological limitations, rendered her incapable of consent.

He also argues that allowing multiple students with mental and behavioral problems to be on the bus at the same time created a risk of harm to the female student and the bus monitor failed to supervise these children.

When contacted at the close of business Sept. 14, Attorney C. Steven Miller, solicitor for Northampton Area School District Board of Education, said, “The only knowledge that the district had about any court complaint came from the article in [The Morning Call]. The district has not been legally served with any complaint.”

Northampton Area School District is one of 10 school districts in Northampton County. It serves approximately 5,800 students in Bath, Chapman and Northampton boroughs, as well as Allen, East Allen, Lehigh and Moore townships.

Colonial IU-20, which transports students with special needs, serves 13 school districts in three different counties, including NASD. It transports nearly 900 students to over 100 different schools and programs daily. Its buses and vans are inspected every six months.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has established guidelines for bus drivers who transport students with special needs:

“While on the road, watch for any behaviors that might cause a dangerous situation. If aides are available, part of their responsibilities should be to make sure all students remain safely seated and secure. With or without aides, make periodic checks yourself. Knowing each student’s specific behavior patterns will enable you to avoid potentially dangerous situations during transport. Before transporting any student with special needs, it is critical to understand the disability and potential behavior each student may exhibit.”

According to an IU-20 driver who has requested confidentiality, most of the buses used are equipped with cameras that might be able to confirm whether the assault took place. He stressed every student with special needs is different, so in some cases, no monitor is necessary.

The driver interviewed agreed that some students do attempt to open doors and jump out while the bus is moving. In some cases, a student with special needs will start running the moment he leaves school unless closely watched. He said drivers receive orientation training after they are hired and receive additional training throughout the year.

In light of the alleged events, he stressed it is important for parents to communicate with the driver about any issue that might bother a child or any issues that may affect the other students on the bus. Though he has no knowledge of this specific incident, he said he is proud of IU-20’s overall safety record.

As of press time, there was no comment from Northampton Area School District Superintendent of Schools Joseph S. Kovalchik in response to emails from The Press.

Editor’s note: Paul Willistein contributed to this story.