CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – When the state’s bus driver trainer showed up to the Chesterfield County School District’s bus lot in Ruby in September 2018, there was someone there waiting to tell her something.
That someone was a special needs bus driver named Erica McBride.
QCN INVESTIGATES: THE LONGEST RIDE
McBride pulled S.C. Department of Education bus driver trainer, PJ Krause, over to the side and told Krause something about the CCSD’s special needs buses: they do not have adult attendants onboard. Not even the buses with wheelchair lifts where a driver has to leave the seat to operate the ramp, leaving children unsupervised while the driver — alone — to deal with loading and unloading the student.
McBride told Krause she was driving a lift-equipped bus, alone, and the bus was at maximum capacity. She was concerned that she couldn’t provide sufficient supervision and handle her bus driving duties at the same time, “At that time I was driving another route that had full capacity on that bus with one wheelchair on there,” McBride testified in an August 2020 deposition.
Krause later testified that McBride’s bus had 18 students on her route.
McBride was deposed, along with multiple CCSD administrators, after Autumn Angle’s mother, Jessica Condon filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district in March 2019. Angle, a nonverbal autistic four-year-old child at the time, was attacked nearly 100 times on her school bus in November 2018 by a nine-year-old boy, identified as “J.M.”, a child diagnosed with a behavioral disorder.
Condon’s attorney, Patrick McLaughlin, counted 96 attacks in that single day’s bus ride.
The bus recordings show J.M. was the only unrestrained student on the bus that day. Angle and another nonverbal boy were strapped into their bus seats and bus video recordings show J.M. attacking both restrained children multiple times in the morning and afternoon bus ride on Nov. 8, 2018. The attacks left Angle with bite marks and bruises all over the left side of her body.
The wheelchair student was not attacked.
McLaughlin obtained dozens of emails and years of school records for the four children on the bus that November morning. In those records, McLaughlin uncovered an email trail that started in September 2018, the day McBride first cornered PJ Krause at the bus lot in Ruby, then again at a gas station in Pageland.
McBride later testified that she was searching for someone to help and thought Krause was the only one who could deliver it.
“She came to me because she had 18 students on her bus. Multiple students were in child restraint systems. She had a wheelchair-restrained student and other students that were not needing a restraint system. She did not feel that she could safely transport all of these students and do what we required her to do and believed that she needed an attendant. That’s when I found out that Chesterfield did not require attendants on lift-equipped buses. And I asked her, ‘Have you contacted your supervisor?’ She stated that she verbally did. I told her she needs to do it in writing, and she agreed because that’s the only way that we would be able to assist her as long as there has been something in writing from the driver stipulating because it’s the driver’s responsibility to notify their supervisor if they ever feel like something isn’t safe,” Krause testified.
McBride said she contacted her supervisor, Robin Barrett. Barrett is CCSD’s Special Transportation Coordinator and oversaw the district’s dozen special needs bus routes at that time, “I sent her an email asking her – I didn’t ask her about a bus monitor because, at that time, she (Krause) didn’t really say bus monitor, she said like for the IEPs to find out the behaviors and if they had any medical issues, is what she said that I needed to address and send an email asking for a copy of that so I would know what was going on.”
McBride said she never got a response from Barrett. That non-response is what McBride said led her to track Krause down at a gas station to file another complaint about the lack of adult attendants.
“She stated that she feels very frustrated that she did not feel as though her supervisor was taking her concerns seriously. And that’s when I felt as though I could help by sending an email directly to her supervisors,” Krause testified, recalling the second meeting with McBride at the gas station.
Krause emailed Barrett and Karen Rogers. Rogers was the district’s special needs program director at the time. Krause testified that she copied Barrett’s boss in hopes Rogers could get the attendant problem straightened out.
“I was told that your district does not require attendants on special needs bus [sic]. This is the reason for my letter,” Krause wrote in a Sept. 3, 2018 email to Karen Rogers. The subject line is titled, ‘Attendants on Special Needs Buses.’
Krause suggested the district “investigate the value” of having a second adult on the special needs buses “to assist with loading or unloading students, attending to medical issues or emergency’s [sic] and assisting evacuations in the possibility of a bus accident or fire.”
“Putting the driver in charge of medical and behavioral disorders along with a higher level of driving awareness could potentially endangers [sic] the students, general driving public and the driver.”PJ Krause, SC Department of Education Bus Driver Trainer
The following day, Rogers forwarded then-Superintendent Dr. Harrison Goodwin the SCDOE email warning, asking Goodwin for permission to address Krause’s points, “Do you wish for us to pursue this?” Rogers asked in a Sept. 4, 2018 email.
“Might not be a bad idea to at least do some cost analysis,” Goodwin responded.
Rogers responded to Krause two days later, writing in part that CCSD “will definitely look into the possibility of attendants on each special needs bus,” a Sept. 5, 2018 email from Rogers’ school district account shows. Rogers indicated in the email that the district only places attendants on buses where a student has “a serious medical condition or a medical condition that doesn’t warrant itself to riding a bus alone.”
We attempted several times to reach Karen Rogers to request an interview, but a phone number published in Rogers’ name was not working. On Nov. 14, we sent a letter to Rogers’ home address, but Rogers never responded.
Goodwin later admitted the district didn’t follow through on the state’s warnings, “There was no cost analysis for placing attendants on special needs buses in the two months that passed between that first warning email from PJ Krause and the November 5, 2018, attacks by JM against AA?” McLaughlin asked Goodwin during an August 2020 deposition. “That, that is correct,” Goodwin responded.
Goodwin’s deposition lasted more than four hours.
The depositions also revealed no one in the school district – not even Goodwin – informed the parents of the children on the special needs buses, the public, nor the school board about the SCDOE warnings about the lack of adult attendants in Chesterfield County. Here’s the transcript of portions of the questioning of Goodwin by McLaughlin:
MCLAUGHLIN: “So even in the wake of, of having seen the Department of Education’s warnings borne out in these attacks, attacks that your own administrators have communicated to you in writing an email so far, were heart wrenching and unacceptable, you guys still aren’t willing to inform the public of the dangerous situation with the special needs bus operation, are you?”
GOODWIN: “We did not.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “There was no cost associated with informing the parents of the children on those special needs buses, that the buses were being operated in, in a way that potentially endangered their children, was there?”
GOODWIN: “No, sir, there would not have been a cost.”
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: “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?”
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?”
GOODWIN: “No sir.”
McLaughlin obtained emails Goodwin sent within hours of the district learning of the attacks on Nov. 5, 2018. Goodwin emailed the Chesterfield County School Board the evening of the attacks, telling the board about “a student matter” that happened on a school bus.
“It appears that Ruby Elementary School student with autism was bitten multiple times by another student while on the bus on the way home today,” and the district was working to “recover the video” from the school bus. “There are many unanswered questions at this point, but we will continue to follow up to seek answers,” Goodwin wrote in the email.
A second email provided to Condon’s legal team in discovery in the lawsuit shows Goodwin updated the board on Nov. 6, 2018 – 22 hours after the attacks. “There are concerns related to appropriate supervision by the bus driver and based on those concerns and [sic] we have turned that information over to the sheriff’s department,” Goodwin wrote.
“The bus driver will not be driving the bus while all investigations are conducted,” Goodwin told the school board. None of the emails provided to QCN show Goodwin told the board any other details about what happened on the bus ride.
Here’s the transcript of a portion of the deposition questioning of Goodwin by McLaughlin:
MCLAUGHLIN: “Nowhere in either email, did you inform the board about any of the warnings you had received from the South Carolina Department of Education two months prior?”
GOODWIN: “That is correct.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “And nowhere in either email, did you inform the board the board of any cost analysis that you had been doing to address the operations of special needs buses that potentially endanger the student’s general driving public and the driver?”
GOODWIN: “I had not informed them that we were doing cost analysis.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Nowhere in either email, did you inform the board that there needed to be an emergency session or meeting to discuss the operation of the special needs buses, which potentially endangered the students, the driving public, and the driver?”
GOODWIN: “No, sir.”
McLaughlin believes the reason Goodwin didn’t tell the board about the SCDOE warnings was that the administration wanted to cover up the true problems that led to a special needs student being attacked 96 times while no one was there to stop it.
“An email got sent out pretty quickly letting them know about the attacks and pardon the pun, throwing the bus driver under the bus for them. No 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 Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr during an interview in November at McLaughlin’s law firm in Florence.
“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…I’m not aware of any record in the public record; the minutes of any school board meeting where this issue was ever raised. So the question is, is it if you’re working to try to fix this, and that’s affecting children on your school buses, why? Why aren’t you telling the public how you’re trying to fix it? Why aren’t you letting the public know that you had this, that you were warned about it two months beforehand,” McLaughlin asked rhetorically.
“Once again, we get back to the point that if they if they had the urgency, a fraction of the urgency to fix the problems as they did to try to hide what the warnings had been, and what the actual problems were, this never would have happened.”
McLaughlin questioned Goodwin about this point during the August 2020 deposition:
MCLAUGHLIN: “But instead of communicating any of those warnings that you knew about with the customary practice of operating the buses by the district, you just communicated to the board that Sires wasn’t giving appropriate supervision?”
GOODWIN: “Well, that, that is what, what happened. I would not say that that was a calculated decision on my part just to be honest.”
“They knew it was a problem. They could have easily said, ‘Hey, we got to do something now.’ We can understand if it’s going to take a while to get attendants, it’s going to take a while to figure out how we’re going to get them on the buses, but there’s no reason whatsoever why somebody couldn’t have made a decision then and said, ‘We’re going to bring these parents in, we’re going to explain to them what the problem is, we’re going to give these parents the option of whether or not they’re going to leave the children on these buses, while we try to implement a program of attendants. They never did any of that,” McLaughlin told QCN.
“In the depositions, Superintendent Dr. Goodwin admitted, there was no good reason for them not to share that information with the parents. And that’s completely unacceptable.”
J.M.’s KNOWN HISTORY OF PHYSICAL AGGRESSION
When Autumn Angle was attacked nearly 100 times on a Chesterfield County special needs bus in November 2018, no one – not even the school board – knew this attack could have likely been prevented.
One way, Condon’s attorney argued, was to have another adult onboard the bus.
All it would have taken was another set of eyes sitting there and the truth be told that little boy probably never does that, because we know from his records, that’s when those attacks happen. When an adult’s not paying attention to him. And it’s clear, that’s what he was doing. I mean, you can see it in the video, he’s waiting until the bus driver puts his eyes on the road, and then that’s when he’s doing it,” Mclaughlin told QCN.
Another preventative measure McLaughlin believes the district had was to inform the bus driver, Ronnie Sires, of the danger J.M.’s disciplinary record and behavioral disorder posed.
The depositions revealed J.M. was placed on the special needs bus at Ruby Elementary School in April 2016 “due to behavioral issues.” The district decided to place J.M. in a self-contained classroom where he could receive more intimate help with his schoolwork and so he could work on managing his multiple behavioral disorders.
J.M.’s record showed 15 disciplinary referrals, 11 for physical aggression, and three that happened on school buses. The physical aggression dated back to head start, according to the deposition testimony. A CCSD evaluator wrote in one of J.M.’s assessments that he’s “determined to do harm,” and that he threatens, bullies seeks revenge, and hits other children.”
“He was on that bus to take him to a special program, a special program where he got the type of attention he needed to get so that he didn’t commit these types of attacks on children,” McLaughlin said of J.M., “Because that’s what the problem had been, they knew this. When he’s on that bus, he ain’t getting that type of attention, especially when that bus has one adult on it and that adult’s got to be paying attention to the road.”
Goodwin explained that J.M. had not displayed aggressive behavior during the school year since moving to Ruby Elementary, although an assessment dating back to April 2016 showed the boy’s physically aggressive behaviors “intensified in severity and frequency,” the deposition videos revealed.
McLaughlin questioned Goodwin about J.M.’s history during the August 2020 deposition. Here’s a portion of the transcript of that exchange:
MCLAUGHLIN: “What precautions did the school district take to ensure that JM would not be physically aggressive on the special needs bus to Ruby Elementary School?”
GOODWIN: “I don’t know that I can know the answer to that question.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “So even with the added steps that the school district was taking to address J.M.’s behavior in these regular school settings, his behavior is getting worse?”
GOODWIN: “The prescription certainly is not making it any better…Obviously, the prescription is not working.”
Following the November 2018 attacks, Jessica Condon never put her daughter back on the school bus. She’s driven Autumn to school each day since and picked her up in the evenings. Condon, a nurse, even changed her work schedule to weekends so she could be there to shuttle her children to and from school.
Condon said she also never found out when – or if – the Chesterfield County School District put attendants on its special needs buses. Not until she attended the depositions in the lawsuit.
The district’s Special Transportation Coordinator, Robin Barrett, testified in her deposition the district didn’t put any new attendants on its special needs buses until August 2019 – nine months after the attacks. Barrett testified the district put attendants on buses only if a medical reason or an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, required an attendant as part of the special needs services districts are required to provide under federal law.
The email records McLaughlin obtained in the lawsuit show in the two months between the SCDOE warning and the Autumn Angle attacks, the district compiled a list of its special needs buses and where attendants were needed. The list showed 12 special needs routes at the time and only one attendant out of the 12 routes.
The district confirmed to QCN still, now more than four years after the attacks, the district does not have a written policy requiring adult attendants on special needs buses. But, beginning in the 2020 – 2021 school year, the CCSD began funding attendant positions and putting them on all special needs buses, according to Ken Buck, a Lancaster County School Board member who does contract public relations work for the CCSD.
Buck did not seek re-election to the school board in Lancaster and left office in October 2022.
“In a continuous effort to ensure student safety, Chesterfield County School District has a number of measures currently in place for buses that transport students of exceptional needs. The district currently has ten buses that fall into that category and safety measures include additional training for bus drivers on how to handle the needs of exceptional needs students. This additional training is led by the S.C. Department of Education.”Ken Buck, Chesterfield County School District Spokesman
Also, the district now has adult monitors on those buses to assist with supervision. These exceptional needs buses do not go on any bus route without an additional adult to assist the primary driver with supervision.” – Ken Buck, CCSD Spokesman
Buck said the district has had adult attendants on all special needs buses since August of 2020.
‘SCANT EVIDENCE’ OF ACTUAL DAMAGES
One of the first filings in Condon v. CCSD, et. al., is a subpoena from Patrick McLaughlin asking for education records on the other students on the special needs bus with Autumn Angle and J.M. that day. McLaughlin’s subpoena also sought contact information for each parent.
Court filings show the district asked the court to block McLaughlin’s subpoena, but the court denied the district’s motion to quash, forcing the CCSD to hand over the records.
What McLaughlin found was the other parents didn’t know these attacks happened until the court granted McLaughlin’s subpoena, which forced the district to notify the parents of the other children of the attacks, he said. One of those children was identified as N.H.W., the child strapped into the seat in front of Autumn Angle.
“They found out that he (N.H.W.) had been attacked because they got a letter from the school district after the court ordered the school district to turn over HW’s records to us so we can look at that to see if HW should have had a shadow,” McLaughlin said.
N.H.W. was also attacked multiple times by J.M., according to the bus video recording – 12 times, by McLaughlin’s count.
“The major argument in this entire case was they fought incredibly hard to try to argue that they didn’t violate Autumn’s constitutional rights. That’s what they spent three years trying to defeat,” McLaughlin told QCN.
“They made the same arguments over and over again and every time different judges kept saying nope, this case falls within the narrow exceptions where a state actor (CCSD/Goodwin) can be on the hook for the violation of a person’s rights by a non-state actor (Sires). And so, they fought incredibly hard for three years to try to get rid of that, because the truth of the matter is, that increases the value of the case significantly,” the civil rights attorney said.
“And it wasn’t until they finally accepted defeat on that, and we were staring down the barrel of a December (2022) trial date, that the negotiations became meaningful,” McLaughlin said in the November interview.
Chesterfield County court records show several attempts by Condon and McLaughlin to have the CCSD, Goodwin, Sires, and the SCDOE settle the lawsuit instead of taking the case all the way to a jury trial. Court records show the following settlement offers, which were all declined:
October 2019: $3.6 million settlement offer, declined by CCSD, Goodwin, Sires
March 2020: $100,000 settlement offer, declined by the SCDOE
April 2020: $1 million settlement offer, declined by Goodwin
April 2020: $1 million settlement offer, declined by Sires
April 2020: $1.6 million settlement offer, declined by CCSD
The SCDOE was the first to accept a settlement offer. In June, the SCDOE agreed to pay Condon $187,500 to settle the lawsuit – at almost double what Condon offered the SCDOE to settle just three months earlier.
In January, McLaughlin received a letter from the CCSD attorney, David T. Duff. Duff is part of the Duff, Freeman, Lyon law firm in Columbia. Duff wrote to McLaughlin after McLaughlin sent Duff a proposed mediation bracket to settle the case with a figure between $1.8 million to $5.6 million.
Duff wrote there was “scant evidence” of actual damages in the case and called the offer “preposterous.”
“We find your proposed bracket for mediation of $1.8 million to $5.6 million rather preposterous, or as you put it, insulting. We are in this for the long haul too and are confident at some juncture – pre-trial, at trial, post-trial, appeal – a court will conclude that your Section 1983 claims lack factual and legal basis. Worst case, qualified immunity will be found [sic] and the individual defendants and your punitive damages claim eliminated. Further, you may have a strong gross negligence case on liability, and an argument for a two caps exposure, but there is scant evidence of actual damages, in this case, even under one cap,” Duff wrote in the letter.
On March 30, 2022, Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles handed down two orders, denying both Goodwin and Sires’ motions to dismiss the claims against them. On August 31, five months after Nettles denied their dismissal motion, Goodwin, Sires, and the CCSD agreed to pay Autumn Angle’s family $2 million to settle the civil rights lawsuit.
“Upon review of the Petition, this Court finds that there exists between the Plaintiff and the CCSD Defendants a contest and controversy concerning these matters, which is more fully set out in the Complaint and that the CCSD Defendants deny liability of any nature or kind,” Nettles wrote in an August 31, 2022 settlement order.
Although the official court record shows the defendants deny liability, McLaughlin said the $2 million check the defendants wrote tells the tale, “There’s one reason why somebody voluntarily cuts a $2 million check, because they’re worried about how big of a check a jury is going to make them cut.”
“This case was not about money. This case was about the safety of their child and the safety of other children, and we got to a point to where school was coming back into session, Chesterfield County School District was running ads again, they needed attendants. Lee and Jessica have to face the choice: are we going to wait until December to take this case to trial, or are we in a position now to where they are offering enough money that is sizable enough that people are going to take notice? People are going to have to recognize that there’s a problem, and maybe other school districts around the state realize we don’t want to get popped the same way Chesterfield did, we need to make sure we’ve got attendants on our buses,” McLaughlin told QCN.
McLaughlin said the settlement provided the cost analysis Goodwin was looking for back on Sept. 4, 2018: $2.2 million.
“We had reached a point to where that money is going to be able to benefit Autumn for the rest of her life and they were going to be able to have a sizable verdict that was going to be public record and that people were going to have to stand up and take notice and school districts were going to hopefully act to make sure this didn’t happen in their own districts.”
“It’s been four years; we could keep going at this for four more. But I was ready, I was ready to stop so that I could move forward at trying to get some real change. What we did with the case involved, showing what could happen if you don’t protect children on the bus, showing how much of a damage that can happen – not only through her injuries – but through what the district had to pay,” Condon said.
The legal troubles for Goodwin, Sires and the CCSD might not be over. On July 1, just two months before the settlement was finalized, Goodwin left the CCSD and took over the superintendent post at the Kershaw County School District. Goodwin did not respond to emails asking him to schedule an interview for this report.
Instead, Goodwin’s attorney, former SC state senator Vincent Sheheen did.
“Basically, a child has until they are 18 to file a claim in SC. So any claims that could be filed by any other kids related to this incident cannot be closed out for many years. I cannot surmise if there are any other claims that may be filed or not, but I have to provide appropriate representation considering possible outcomes since more children were on the bus.
Finally, since Mr. Goodwin was serving in his official capacity with Chesterfield County Schools when these events happened and no longer is employed by them, it really would not be appropriate for him to comment on anything that occurred anyway. That should be done by the current administration at the school district.”Vincent Sheheen, Dr. Harrison Goodwin’s attorney
We went to the November Kershaw County School Board meeting to question Goodwin. He would not answer any of our questions.
The CCSD and its new superintendent, Dr. Chan Anderson – who worked as Goodwin’s assistant superintendent – declined to participate in an interview with QCN to discuss steps the district took to make sure this never happens again.
On Sept. 1, the day after the settlement was signed in the Condon case, the CCSD spokesman sent this statement to reporters:
“We certainly regret deeply that this child suffered. We do not agree or accept the characterization of the case by the family’s attorneys, the degree of fault on the district’s part or of its superintendent at the time, Dr. Harrison Goodwin, who served our district and community honorably and well during his tenure in Chesterfield County.”
We asked CCSD Spokesman Ken Buck if the district wanted to add anything further to the Sept. 1 statement before our ‘The Longest Ride’ reports aired, but Buck declined to add to the statement.
CONTINUING READING: PART 3 OF ‘THE LONGEST RIDE’