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Former Poudre School District paraprofessional pleads guilty to child abuse, assault

Tyler Zanella accepted a plea deal that dropped the number of charges from 164 to 11.
Former Poudre School District employee facing over 100 charges related to alleged child abuse, parents seek justice for children
Posted at 9:30 PM, Jan 29, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-30 00:22:07-05

LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. — A former Poudre School District paraprofessional who faced more than 100 charges related to child abuse pleaded guilty Monday to less than a dozen counts.

Tyler Zanella, 37, was arrested in May 2023 for allegedly hitting a kindergartner with disabilities "on several occasions," according to Fort Collins Police Services (FCPS). Police identified 11 victims through surveillance video, all of whom were at-risk due to disabilities.

Zanella initially faced 164 charges, including crimes against an at-risk juvenile, third-degree assault and child abuse. He pleaded guilty to 11 counts in a Larimer County courtroom Monday as part of a plea deal.

  • Seven counts of assault in the third degree against an at-risk person (Class 6 felony)
  • Two counts of harassment (Class 1 misdemeanor)
  • Two counts of child abuse (Class 1 misdemeanor)
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Zanella worked on a bus route that primarily served children with disabilities. In May 2023. Zanella was caught on surveillance video hitting a 6-year-old boy who has autism and is non-verbal, according to his arrest affidavit.

Investigators discovered several other instances that were recorded. One video showed Zanella striking a child five times in four seconds before hitting a different student a minute later. Zanella also hit children in the face with backpacks.

According to the affidavit, parents contacted investigators after their child tried to run away from the school bus. The child was afraid to take baths or showers because they did not want anything touching their head, court documents state.

The Poudre School District hired Zanella at the end of August 2022. He was fired on May 24, 2023.

Several parents of the 11 children involved in the case were present in the courtroom Monday. Some supported the plea deal, while others did not.

Those in favor of the plea deal said they did not want the case to go to trial and wanted to move forward and begin healing. Still, they asked for the maximum sentence for Zanella.

One of the parents who spoke virtually, Daisy Montgomery, said she "can definitely and wholeheartedly appreciate the rage and anger" that Zanella inflicted upon the parents and children involved. Montgomery said there will never be justice in the case since nothing can reverse what had been done to the children.

Montgomery said she has autism and would not want to see children with autism endure a trial. She insinuated a trial would benefit parents, not the children.

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Another mother, Sabrina Herrick, does not believe the plea deal is sufficient. She watched a video of one interaction between Zanella and her daughter, who was nine years old at the time.

“What I saw that day is my daughter sitting on the bus, looking out a bus window, minding her own business, not a care in the world. And then Tyler comes over and stands over the top of her, just hunched over her, blocking her into the seat. And she sees him and immediately throws her arm up like this," Herrick said while lifting her arm above her head. “He smacks her arm down and then proceeds to stand over the top of her for a good three minutes, just flicking her in the face repeatedly. Every once in a while, he'd stop and he'd look around to see if there were any adults around who could see what was going on. And then he'd go back to it. She was just bawling her eyes out. It was awful.”

Herrick said she was first told about a plea deal in November 2023.

“We were told our children would never have to testify, that they wouldn't be allowed to testify [in a trial]," Herrick said. "And suddenly, they (other parents) seem to be under the impression that their children are going to have to testify.”

Herrick said she respects the other parents' opinions but would like the deal to be rejected by the judge. She wants to see the "truth of the matter proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

“I feel that justice is making sure that our children get to see that there were real consequences for what was done to them. And also making sure that something like this can never happen again," said Herrick. “Our children are never going to be 100% the same as they were before they went through this.”

Zanella's sentencing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on April 12. Judge Daniel McDonald ordered a Presentence Investigative Report (PSI) and a community corrections screening to be completed and submitted before the sentencing for his review. At that point, the judge will determine whether he accepts or rejects the plea. If McDonald accepts it, the case will move forward to sentencing on the April date. If not, Zanella's plea will be withdrawn.

The potential punishment in the case depends on several factors, including whether sentences are served consecutively or concurrently. Depending on the judge's decision, Zanella could spend more than a decade behind bars.

Zanella was previously arrested for child abuse in 2012. The case was dismissed after he pleaded guilty to child abuse - negligence - no injury (misdemeanor).

Former Poudre School District paraprofessional pleads guilty to child abuse, assault

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