After multiple claims, how are Colorado schools preventing school bus abuse?

After multiple cases of school bus aides assaulting special needs students, Denver7 looked into the current policies and what parents and advocates want to change
autistic student bus abuse
Posted at 7:40 PM, May 06, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-06 22:30:47-04

DENVER — School bus aides in multiple Colorado school districts have been charged with hitting special needs students in recent years. After a disturbing video released last month revealed the latest case of abuse, Denver7 Investigates looked into Colorado’s current policies and what parents and advocates want to change.

The ongoing police investigation into former Littleton bus paraprofessional Kiarra Jones is the fourth such case of alleged assault of autistic students on Colorado school buses since 2016. The incidents took place in the St. Vrain Valley, Aurora, Poudre and Littleton school districts.

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“It's a systemic issue. It happens across schools,” said Katelyn Kendrick, who has taught special needs students for the last 10 years.

"They put people who are underprepared into situations that require a lot of understanding and a lot of skills. And they just don't have them,” she said.

Kendrick recently quit her job working with special needs children in the Aurora Public School District over her concerns with how paraprofessionals are trained and supervised.

"I could not take the way that the children are being treated,” she said. “You have a highly vulnerable population that engages in behaviors that other people are going to label as problematic, and then a population of support workers that don't know how to support. So, it's asking for abuse.”

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Kendrick said the problem starts with the hiring process.

“I was explicitly told by somebody from the district that what they wanted was bodies in classrooms, and that they were not concerned about the quality of who was there providing care for the children,” she said.

Unlike classroom teachers, who are expected to have a college education and certain credentials like licenses, Colorado law doesn’t include any requirements for paraprofessionals.

The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) provides some guidance for school districts receiving federal funding on recommended best practices for hiring paraprofessionals.

But the CDE said because Colorado is a local control state, each school district comes up with its own policies for hiring, training, supervising and investigating complaints against paraprofessionals. The state doesn’t track what each district does.

Denver7 asked the CDE if it is considering policy changes given the cases of known abuse on school buses in recent years. The CDE said it has “no immediate plans out of the Office of Special Education to update policies or practices regarding paraprofessionals.”

Taylor Unwin, whose son is in an intensive autism program in the Poudre School District, is frustrated by the lack of state regulation.

"We really need something at the state level that mandates what the minimum requirements are,” she said.

Unwin recently started a petition calling for statewide regulations for how school districts hire paraprofessionals and monitor surveillance videos from school buses.

"There is a coalition of parents that are demanding this change,” said Unwin, who has been outspoken at meetings with both the Poudre and Littleton school districts.

Unwin said the recent news about abuse in Littleton felt like déjà vu. In Poudre, former school bus paraprofessional Tyler Zanella was accused of assaulting children with autism during the 2022 to 2023 school year. Just weeks ago, Zanella pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison without the possibility of parole.

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When Poudre hired Zanella, he already had a prior child abuse conviction.

The Poudre School District told Denver7 it has since changed its hiring practices.

“Any hiring candidate with a record of felony or misdemeanor child abuse and neglect will be automatically disqualified and not be considered for any position in the district,” a Poudre School District spokesperson said.

Denver7 contacted Colorado’s 10 biggest school districts with questions about how they hire, supervise and investigate their paraprofessionals. Only four responded to our questions: Adams 12 Five Star Schools, Boulder Valley School District, Cherry Creek Schools and Poudre School District.

All of the school districts that responded said they are:

  • Looking at ways to improve safety practices and increase training.  
  • Fingerprinting and background checking new hires. 
  • Reviewing bus surveillance videos, although they didn’t specify how often. 
  • Launching investigations when they get a complaint and putting the employee on administrative leave. 

Littleton Public Schools did not respond to our questions but did provide a letter sent by its superintendent to parents. Superintendent Todd Lambert wrote in the letter that the district provides transportation paraprofessionals with specialized training when they are first hired and ongoing training. The district “aspires to be a state leader in taking as many precautions as possible to safeguard our children, especially those who are the most vulnerable,” the superintendent said.

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Many concerned parents have recently confronted the Littleton Public Schools Board of Education. With some calling on Littleton Superintendent Todd Lambert to resign. Lambert was previously superintendent in Poudre around the time of the abuse there.

While Colorado school districts try to come up with improved policies for protecting their most vulnerable students, special needs advocates like Kendrick said parents are taking on a bigger role in pushing for change.

“I have parents reach out to me multiple times a week with requests for support of navigating the system,” Kendrick said.

Her advice to parents: “If something feels funky, then don't be afraid to question it... read your students behavior plans, read their goals. If they don't seem individualized, question it, push back, reach out for help, get support from the community.”

Parents like Unwin hope more parents, including those whose children don’t have special needs, will get involved.

“I'd encourage other parents to go to their school board meetings and ask for change,” she said.

After multiple claims, how are Colorado schools preventing school bus abuse?

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