COLUMBIA, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – More than four years after Autumn Angle, a 4-year-old nonverbal autistic child, was attacked nearly 100 times on a Chesterfield County school bus, the state still has no law requiring adult attendants on special needs buses.
There’s also no law requiring school districts tell bus drivers about students with health/behavioral conditions that could impact the health and safety of other students on the bus. The only time an adult attendant is required is when a student’s Individual Education Plan calls for a shadow.
When Angle was attacked on Nov. 5, 2018, the only adult on her school bus was the driver, Ronnie Sires. Angle and another child, identified as NHW, were in restraints, but a 9-year-old boy identified as JM was not. The bus recording shows JM attack Angle nearly 100 times on the bus ride to and from school that day.
The attacks included kicks, bites, punches to Angle’s face, as well as pinches that left deep bruising up and down the left side of the girl’s body.
The bus driver told investigators he didn’t see JM attacking Angle or NHW in any of the assaults that spanned much of the two-hour bus ride that day. Sires also testified in his August 2020 deposition that he didn’t know what was happening just feet behind his driver’s seat.
“Leave her alone, leave her alone,” Sires was captured on the recording telling JM as the boy finished attacking the restrained girl. Angle’s screams underscore the majority of the school bus recordings.
“I don’t know what the problem is, but we going to be at school in a little bit,” Sires said aloud during the morning bus ride as Angle continued crying out.
“We’re fighting so that no other children like Autumn will ever have to suffer or go through that again,” SC Representative Richie Yow told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr during an interview at the SC State House in November.
Yow, like other state officials, knew of the 2018 attacks and saw the bus attack videos in February 2019 after the little girl’s family decided to make them public three months after the attacks. But, Yow didn’t know the backstory of how the State Department of Education sent Chesterfield County School District officials a warning two months before the attacks.
That warning was the district was violating state law by not having adult attendants on special needs buses with wheelchair lifts. State law bars drivers from leaving a running bus to operate a wheelchair lift. The state also warned the district that not having an adult attendant on all its special needs buses was “potentially endangering” the students, the bus driver, and the public.
At the time, the CCSD had only one adult attendant on its 12 special needs bus routes.
“There’s no excuse for a child to be restrained on a special needs bus and be attacked on a special needs bus,” Yow said, “You can’t blame the driver, they’re driving. That should be their number one focus because that is a dangerous job. Safety for our children is driving and keeping them safe.”
Yow decided in November to ask SC House of Representative attorneys to draft a bill requiring at least one adult attendant onboard every special needs school bus in South Carolina. The bill, House Bill 3067, would make it illegal for a district to do what Chesterfield County School District officials admitted in video-recorded depositions was a “common practice” in that county for years.
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Yow’s bill, if it becomes law, would prohibit school districts from using a driver as the attendant.
“We need to go a step further. We need to make it safe for our children, just as we would any other situation and that’s what we’re doing with pre-draft legislation. We’ve dropped a bill that would require an attendant to be on the special needs bus if a child is restrained – that’s pick-up and take home,” Yow said.
Autumn Angle’s parents sued the CCSD and the SC Department of Education in 2019. The lawsuit accused the district of committing civil rights violations against Angle and ignoring warnings from the state – and its own bus driver – about the dangers of not putting adult attendants on special needs buses. Those warnings came two months before the bus attack.
WATCH: The Chesterfield County School board called law enforcement multiple times while Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr and drone pilot Jack Anderson worked to video record school district buildings from public property. Staff in the administrative offices pulled the panic alarm twice, which caused two separate law enforcement agencies to initiate an emergency response.
The claims against the education department dealt with the state’s failure to protect Angle – and to properly train and supervise bus drivers. The district and the state paid Autumn Angle’s family $2.2 million to settle the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was officially closed in October.
Yow and Angle’s attorney, Patrick McLaughlin, believe the district blamed Sires in the hours following the attacks in an attempt to publicly redirect the blame for what happened to Angle, “An email got sent out pretty quickly letting them (CCSD school board) know about the attacks and pardon the pun, throwing the bus driver under the bus for them. At n point in time did Dr. Goodwin or any other administrator bother to tell the school board we were warned about this two months before,” McLaughlin told QCN.
“So there was not appropriate supervision on the Ruby Elementary School Special Needs bus the day AA (Autumn Angle) was attacked,” McLaughlin asked Dr. Harrison Goodwin during an August 2020 deposition. “Yes, Mr. Sires did not display the kind of supervision that I feel like he should have,” Goodwin replied.
The Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office charged bus driver Ronnie Sires with unlawful neglect of a child on Nov. 8, three days after the attacks. The investigator accused Sires of failing to “address” why the girl was screaming throughout the bus ride.
Sires’ charge is still pending today.
Emails between Goodwin and the CCSD in the 48 hours following the bus attacks show the superintendent informed his bosses about the attacks, but not about the warning the SCDOE sent the district just two months earlier. CCSD internal records also show Goodwin’s response to the initial SCDOE warning was to suggest his staff perform a “cost analysis” of adding adult attendants to its special needs buses.
Goodwin testified the district didn’t perform that cost analysis between the time of the SCDOE warning and the Nov. 5, 2018 attacks.
“There’s no communication about, hey, ‘We’ve been doing a cost analysis to try to figure out how to put attendants on these buses,” McLaughlin said, “I’m not aware of any record in the in the public record; the minutes of any school board meeting where this issue was ever raised.”
Harrison admitted in his deposition that neither he nor his administration told parents about the SCDOE warning between the time the state emailed the district and Angle’s attack. Here’s a portion of that exchange between McLaughlin and Goodwin on this point during the superintendent’s August 2020 deposition:
MCLAUGHLIN: “As a parent, do you believe that the parents of the children on the special needs buses had a right to know about the danger when you found out about it?”
GOODWIN: “You know, I’m not sure. I’m not sure I can answer that in a yes/no because there are other, you know, there are other factors that go with that.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Well, let’s look at the fact that you got that warning. Two months go by, we still don’t have the attendants on it and your initial response within days was we’re gonna need to look at a cost analysis. So you knew that you weren’t going to be addressing it right away because you were going to be doing a cost analysis, right?”
GOODWIN: “Yes, sir.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “So you knew that this potentially dangerous operation of the special needs bus was out there and that y’all weren’t going to address it immediately. Are the parents of the children on those buses not entitled to know of the potential danger to their children so they can make a decision of whether or not they’re going to leave the child on the bus while y’all figure it out?”
CCSD ATTORNEY: “Object to the form.”
GOODWIN: “If you if you, you know, if you put it in those terms, it would have been a good thing to have let them know.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Can you think of an acceptable reason why you wouldn’t let parents know when that type of situation?”
CCSD ATTORNEY: “Object to form.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “I’m sorry, what was your answer?”
GOODWIN: “No sir.”
Goodwin also testified he didn’t tell his school board about the state’s warning, either. Here’s a portion of that exchange between McLaughlin and Goodwin during the superintendent’s August 2020 deposition:
MCLAUGHLIN: “When did you first inform anyone on the school board, that the operation of the special needs buses potentially endangered the student’s general driving public in the driver?”
GOODWIN: “I’m going to say that I had not – I did not inform them in those words at any point. I did inform them that we were going to be looking at putting attendants on buses.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “And when did you inform them of that?”
GOODWIN: “That would have probably been in the budget prep session that would have been held in January of that year, of 19.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Did you ever inform anyone with the school board that you had received those warnings from the Department of Education two months before the attacks?”
GOODWIN: “No, sir. Not per se.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “When you say not per se, did you ever inform them of it at all?”
GOODWIN: “Again, I did not say we got this email from State Department, and this is what it said, no, sir.”
Those depositions also revealed once the school board found out about the attacks, it did nothing to investigate how it happened or what the district could do to keep this from ever happening again. Here’s a portion of that exchange between McLaughlin and Eric Dusa, an elected CCSD school board member designated to testify on behalf of the school board:
MCLAUGHLIN: “Did the school board take any action in response to those attacks?”
DUSA: “We did not, no. We give that to the superintendent to make sure that they that he and his staff do everything they need to.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “So the question is, did the board at any point in time, ask, how did this happen? Did our policies have anything to do with that happening and do we need to revise or create policy to address why it happened?”
DUSA: “I don’t think, I don’t think that was discussed, no.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Did the school board conduct any investigation or evaluation about the administrative actions that were taken, leading up to the attacks and in the wake of the attacks?”
DUSA: “We do not do any investigating ourselves. We do not – we have no committees for investigation or anything like that. Everything administratively that is done in the district falls on the superintendent.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “And did the board look into why these attacks happened and any of the action leading up to it, or the response in the wake of it and performing any of its evaluative duties?”
DUSA: “No, we did not. We did not take that into consideration.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Was the school board ever made aware of the idea that had there been an adult attendant on that bus that these attacks would have either been prevented or if not completely prevented, caught very quickly so that the attacks did not continue to the extent they did?”
DUSA: “No, we were not informed of that.”
The CCSD told QCN it no requires adult attendants on all of its special needs buses, although the district never passed a written policy requiring adult attendants. Without a policy, the district could choose to end the practice at any point.
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Rep. Yow hopes to take that choice away from SC school districts by forcing the use of adult attendants by state law. South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith assigned Rep. Richie Yow’s special needs bus bill to the education and public works committee.
There is no date set yet for when lawmakers will begin to debate the bill when the new legislative session convenes in Columbia in mid-January.
Dr. Harrison Goodwin would not talk to us for this report, instead had his personal attorney, former state senator Vincent Sheheen, respond to decline the interview.