A Florida school bus driver, Stephanie Wilkerson, has been arrested for literally kicking an autistic girl off her bus.
Yes, the driver actually used her foot to apply force to an 8-year-old student as she was going down the bus’s stairs. The child fell and fractured her ankle. The incident, which was recorded in a surveillance camera, occurred on September 28 after the bus pulled up at Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary School.
As the Tampa Bay Times says, before the incident, the child was trying to get off the bus and Wilkerson told her to wait her turn. The child reportedly slapped and pushed the driver.
As school district spokesperson Scott Hegarty emphasizes, “It doesn’t matter what preceded [Wilkerson kicking the child]. That kind of behavior is not acceptable.”
Bus Driver Faces Felony Charge
Someone from the school contacted the Florida Abuse Hotline on October 2. Detectives from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office child abuse division undertook an investigation before passing the case to the Tampa Police Department. On October 25, Wilkerson was arrested at the Hillsborough County Public Schools Transportation facility and held in jail without bail. She now faces a felony charge of aggravated child abuse. The Hillsborough School District has put Wilkerson on paid leave.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Wilkerson had previously been arrested in Florida in 1996, on charges of petty theft and otaining property with a worthless check. While state records show that she has a valid drivers license allowing her to drive a school bus, she had had her license suspended four times since November 2009, for not paying traffic fines and for lapses in insurance. She had been hired in 2008 by the Hillsborough School District and had not had any altercations with students, nor had there been concerns about her driving.
As Hegarty said in words that are at least a bit alarming to parents of children with disabilities like myself, “To be a bus driver, you need to have a good, safe driving record,” Hegarty said. “It doesn’t mean it has to be spotless.”
School Bus Drivers Have Extra Responsibilities When Driving Kids With Disabilities
As if Wilkerson’s kicking an autistic student was not already deeply troubling, Hegarty’s statement about drivers’ records as not having to be “spotless” is less than reassuring to me as a parent of an autistic child and one who is only minimally verbal and therefore unable to tell what might or might not have happened on the school bus.
Like thousands of parents across the U.S., I entrust my son daily to the school bus driver and the bus matron or aide who assists students on the bus (it’s not clear if there was such an aide on the bus Wilkerson was driving). My son attends a county autism center and spends over an hour plus on the bus to travel both to and from school as a number of other children are picked up and, and on the return trip dropped off, in many different towns.
The bus driver and aide indeed have the well-being and safety of my son and several children with disabilities (some with potentially severe behavior issues) in their hands. To say we appreciate them is an understatement. But we also expect and must insist that drivers and aides have adequate training about interacting for children with disabilities.
While transportation for students with disabilities is mandated under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), actual policies for transporting students with disabilities differ from state to state. As one example, the California Department of Education’s Special Education Transportation Guidelines underscore how important the role of bus drivers is, even saying that transportation personnel and staff must be included in discussions and even school meetings. In addition, procedures are to be “developed for communication …when the pupil exhibits severe behavioral difficulties.” Such oversight of Wilkerson by the school district was apparently lacking.
Of course, the 8-year-old autistic girl should not have slapped and pushed Wilkerson; the child’s teachers and others need to teach her to better communicate and manage her own behaviors. But for a school bus driver to physically attack a child, with disabilities or without, is simply inexcusable.
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