Family sues school district over alleged sexual abuse on school bus

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FARMER CITY, Ill. (WCIA) — A family has sued Blue Ridge School District for failing to address or conduct an investigation into the sexual harassment and abuse of a seven-year-old girl with Down Syndrome by a 14-year-old boy on the same bus.

According to the lawsuit filed with the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, the child, referred to as Jane Doe, had an assigned bus seat as part of her Individualized Education Plan (IEP), with a requirement to be buckled into a car seat. The lawsuit alleged the defendants, bus driver Donald Freeman and aides Alesia Zander and Lori Beck, ignored the male student’s harassment of Jane Doe. The actions were caught on the bus’s surveillance camera system.

The teen is accused of:

“repeatedly placing Jane on his lap, at times positioning her so they were face-to-face, and fondling, hugging, touching, and kissing her. Defendants, despite observing MP’s (minor male perpetrator) misconduct, did not stop MP or increase its supervision of him. Instead, Defendants facilitated MP’s access to Jane Doe and his continuous and escalating sexual harassment against her. Jane Doe’s bus aides – Defendants Zander and Beck – often moved out of Jane’s seat specifically so that MP could sit with Jane, allowing him to engage in the above-described sexual misconduct. Defendant Freeman permitted the same behavior. On two occasions, he and the bus aides allowed MP to exit the school bus with Jane Doe and take her into MP’s house, without permission from Jane Doe’s parents. Defendants also knowingly permitted Jane Doe to ride the school bus without a school aide to properly monitor her and/or without being buckled into her car seat, a violation of the express terms of Jane’s IEP, which fostered MP’s access to, and sexual abuse of, Jane.”

Lawsuit as prepared by Jeff Green (Law Office of Jeff Green) and Monica H. Beck (The Fierberg National Law Group, PLLC)

The abuse allegedly took place during the 2019-2020 school year, during which Jane Doe was in first-grade.

According to the lawsuit, around March 17, 2020, law enforcement informed her parents that MP had been found with Jane Doe’s panties and that he had sexually assaulted her on the bus. The teen was criminally prosecuted for sexually abusing Jane Doe as well as his own sister. The lawsuit accused the School district of failing to conduct its own investigation of MP’s sexual harassment against Jane Doe or proactively offer her any academic counseling or other counseling or accommodations, despite knowing of MP’s harassment and abuse and the criminal prosecution.

“It’s heart wrenching,” attorney Jeff Green told WCIA. “I mean, listening to someone talk about how they feel when their daughter has gone through that is heart wrenching. You can literally see it in their eyes, like the weariness, the trauma. You know, the one place that parents want to think their children are safe is school, the school bus in this situation. It was anything but, because of the actions of the school district and the people that were charged with the responsibility of protecting this young girl.”

According to the lawsuit, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled more than a decade ago that school districts that operate buses to transport students “owe their students the highest degree of care to the same extent common carriers owe their passengers the highest degree of care.”

“Schools have a duty to protect their students,” Green said. “It’s their number one charge. It’s their number one responsibility, in particular to the most vulnerable students. We’re talking about what happened in this case. There’s people, you know, looking at this case. They’re saying, ‘how did this happen? Hopefully in their cases like this, we can ensure that we bring it to the school district’s attention. They’re held accountable in court and we keep this from happening to other children.”

The lawsuit requests a jury trial.

“You want people from the community to look at the case and say, ‘what was done wrong? What can be done better? What’s justice for this little girl? And what’s justice for the family or the defendants in the case, whatever they decide?'” Green explained. “So really, you know, jury is the most appropriate party, the most appropriate place to decide what should happen in this case, based on the facts that are presented to them, if there’s a trial.”

WCIA reached out to Blue Ridge school district for a statement. Superintendent Hillary Stanifer replied with the following:

At this time the district has not yet received the complaint. Once received it will be forwarded to our attorney for review and response.

Hillary Stanifer, Blue Ridge superintendent

Back in January, WCIA reported a high school English teacher resigned after he was accused by multiple teens of sending them inappropriate messages.

“These things are too close together to not raise some level of alarm,” Green said.

He’s worried school staff are either ignoring or unable to recognize grooming.

“The fact that a teacher has, you know, resigned less than two months ago for grooming behavior at the same school district, and there’s no real comment from the school on that situation, it’s very innocuous,” he said.

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