CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Richie Yow climbed the stairs from the first floor of the South Carolina State House and made his way to the Speaker’s Office on the second floor on Nov. 16. Yow was in Columbia for a legislative meeting.
He was also there to talk with Queen City News about his bill that would make it illegal for a South Carolina school district to operate a special needs bus without an adult attendant. The state representative is entering his second term as the elected SC House member representing Chesterfield County.
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Yow pulled out his phone and scrolled through messages he’d exchanged with Jessica Condon, the mother of Autumn Angle, the four-year-old nonverbal girl with autism attacked nearly 100 times on a Chesterfield County school bus in 2018.
“I’m seeing pain, I’m seeing suffering. I’m seeing a child hurt and we failed this child is what I’m seeing…bite marks on a child that’s defenseless,” Yow said as he swiped through the pictures and videos Condon sent him. Condon wanted Yow to propose legislation to fix holes in state law that Condon believes led to her daughter’s beating onboard the school bus.
There was no adult attendant on Autumn’s bus when a nine-year-old boy – who is much larger than Autumn and unrestrained – began attacking her and another student identified as N.H.W. on the bus ride home on Nov. 5, 2018.
Condon sued the Chesterfield County School District, Superintendent Harrison Goodwin, bus driver Ronnie Sires, and the S.C. Department of Education three months after her daughter’s attack. Condon said the district showed no signs of putting adult attendants on the special needs buses there, so she decided to do something to hold the district accountable.
In emails uncovered by Condon’s attorney during the lawsuit, they were able to prove the CCSD was warned about not having adult attendants after a special needs bus driver complained to a SCDOE bus driver trainer in September 2018 – just two months before the attacks.
“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,” SCDOE bus driver trainer PJ Krause wrote to CCSD’s director of special needs, Karen Rogers.
Rogers forwarded the warning email to Goodwin, asking him if she should “pursue” putting attendants on the district’s buses.
“Might not be a bad idea to at least do some cost analysis,” Goodwin responded.
That statement appeared to be one of the driving factors for Yow to draft a bill to force SC school districts to do two things: place attendants on all special needs buses and to force school districts to share student health/safety/behavioral information with bus drivers if any of that information might pose a risk to other students.
Both points are what Condon’s attorney, Patrick McLaughlin, said he discovered as lapses in the law that allowed the circumstances that led to the attacks.
“You think cost analysis was the wrong response,” Barr asked Yow in the November interview, “I think it’s hogwash. How can you put a cost analysis on the life of a child? You can’t.”
In his deposition testimony, CCSD bus driver Ronnie Sires said he had no idea the child who attacked Autumn Angle and N.H.W. had a history of physical aggression toward other students. Sires was charged with unlawful neglect of a child following the attacks after investigators accused him of not acting to protect Autumn Angle as she cried and screamed in the 96 times she was pinched, kicked, punched, bitten, and her head slammed against the back of her bus seat.
Sires told investigators and later testified in his deposition that he didn’t know J.M. was attacking the two students on his bus that day. The now-former bus driver said an attendant on the bus that day would have made a difference.
Sires discussed this in an August 2020 deposition in the Condon lawsuit. Here’s a portion of that transcript where Sires is questioned by Condon’s attorney, Patrick McLaughlin:
MCLAUGHLIN: “Do you think if you had known any of this information about JM’s history of physical aggression towards other students, you would have been better prepared to handle what happened on your bus on November 5, 2018?”
SIRES: “I know I would have, sir. I would have been conscious of his action and his ways.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Do you think if the school district had ever shared with you their knowledge about J.M.’s history of physical aggression towards other students, you would have realized that AA was in distress because she was being attacked by J.M.?”
SIRES: “Probably so. Probably so. Probably so, because like I say, I would have known about his actions and his ways of kicking and biting and hitting them. That would have caused me to think because of her crying, he probably would have been doing something to her.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “If you had that knowledge on November 5, 2018, about J.M.’s history of physical aggression towards other students, would you have reacted differently?”
SIRES: “I know I would have reacted differently if I had knowledge his actions and his ways and all these disciplinary actions and stuff that was brought before him in the past. I had no knowledge of this information. I just assumed he was a good child needing to get a ride to school and go home. No knowledge of this stuff in regards to J.M.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “Now that you have this information, do you feel that the school district was responsible for not letting you know how dangerous J.M. was for not taking precautions to address J.M.’s behavioral history and for putting you in a dangerous situation where you had to operate a bus without another attendant?”
SIRES: “Yes, sir.”
Yow also didn’t know the Chesterfield County School District still – more than four years after the attacks – does not have a written policy requiring adult attendants on special needs buses, although the district decided to fully fund attendants on every special needs bus starting in August 2020.
“We should not have to create legislation to protect our children, but that’s what we’re doing. Common sense had four years to prevail but failed,” Yow told QCN, “Time’s over, that’s why we’ve already drafted legislation to be pre-filed December 9th.”
It took until August 2020 for Condon to get confirmation about what the CCSD did to address the bus attendant issue, something she started pushing for in 2019 before her daughter was attacked on a bus without any adult attendant.
Exactly 654 passed between the Nov. 5, 2018 attacks and the August 20, 2020 deposition of the district’s director of special needs, Karen Rogers, who answered this question from McLaughlin:
MCLAUGHLIN: “Were there any changes in the way the special needs buses were operated or in the way information was shared with bus drivers as a result of these attacks?”
ROGERS: “No, sir, not that I’m aware of.”
McLaughlin also deposed two SCDOE staffers, bus driver trainer PJ Krause and Richard Podmore, the state’s safety director. Neither Krause nor Podmore were listed as named defendants, but their agency was. Podmore testified as what’s known as a “30(b)(6)” witness, which is a person who testifies in a civil case on behalf of a corporation.
McLaughlin pressed Podmore on whether the SCDOE adopted any new rules forcing SC school districts to place attendants on special needs buses and to share known student health/behavioral information with unsuspecting bus drivers.
“You have a horrific video that goes public where a child is attacked 96 times that leads to over $2 million settlement that has to be paid out of state funds and to this day, is there any regulation the Department of Ed has put forth to address the two known problems that they know about that caused this,” McLaughlin asked Podmore in the August 2020 deposition.
“If so, I’m unaware of any,” Podmore responded. The inquiry continued:
MCLAUGHLIN: “But you guys are empowered to create regulations by which they have to operate?”
PODMORE: “Yes, sir.”
MCLAUGHLIN: “And there’s nothing stopping the Department of Education from having a regulation that says for these particular situations, you got to have an attendant on the bus?”
PODMORE: “I guess there would not be anything that would prevent the department from establishing that regulation. I’m not the one that would be able to set that up.”
We asked the SCDOE for an interview. The agency’s spokeswoman, Katrina Goggins, initially said the agency would schedule an interview for us with its transportation director, Mike Bowman. But, two weeks later Goggins never followed through with scheduling the interview.
We asked the SCDOE whether it implemented any new regulation – or whether any law went into effect – in the wake of the November 2018 attacks. “The answer to all of your questions is really no,” Goggins told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr in a Nov. 14 phone call.
Rep. Yow hopes his bill, which will become public on the Dec. 9 prefiling day, prevents another child like Autumn Angle from enduring what she endured aboard that Chesterfield County school bus in 2018.
“You hit your finger with a hammer, you’re going to say something about it. You’re going to let people know you’re hurting and where you’re hurting and how that happened. This child couldn’t do that. This child didn’t have the option to do that, she couldn’t. And so, we have to be the voice of Autumn, we have to be the caretaker of Autumn, we have to be the protector, and we must do it at whatever cost whatever necessary to protect – not just Autumn – but any child in that situation or any child, period, in the state of South Carolina,” Yow said.
Yow expects one potential hurdle for his bill is convincing other lawmakers that it’s necessary to mandate districts bear the additional costs associated with mandating attendants, but he thinks that’s an easy argument to overcome, “Understand, that’s not every bus in South Carolina. We’re looking for special needs buses that have restrained individuals in those buses that they can’t speak for themselves, they can’t do for themselves. We’ve got to do that. That’s our job to protect and defend our children.”
“What would you say to a lawmaker who might contemplate voting no,” Barr asked Yow, “Why? What’s the cost of a child? What’s a child worth? You’re going to tell me, you’re not willing to protect this child, that I have the pictures of the results? You’re not willing to protect someone else’s child? I don’t see how you cannot support it when you see the pictures. When you see the video.”
“I don’t see how you can vote against it,” Yow said.
Dr. Harrison Goodwin was the CCSD superintendent when the attacks happened and stayed on at the district through the more than three-year-long litigation. On July 1, 2022 – two months before the Condon lawsuit settled, the Kershaw County School District hired Goodwin as its new superintendent.
Goodwin was sued personally by Condon and McLaughlin.
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 about the allegations against him in the Condon lawsuit. He would not answer any of our questions.
We asked the KCSD whether it requires adult attendants on special needs buses and whether that district shares student health/behavioral information with its bus drivers. “It’s not a district rule/regulation/requirement, but it is common practice,” KCSD Spokeswoman Becky Bean wrote in an emailed response.
Bean wrote that the district did not know when any of these practices went into effect, “The date is unknown,” Bean responded.
When asked whether the KCSD shares student health/behavioral information with its bus drivers – such as behavioral information the CCSD did not share about J.M. – Bean wrote, “It is not a district rule/regulation/requirement, however, health information is shared on a need-to-know basis (FERPA). School nurses share this information with bus supervisors, and bus drivers and attendants are trained on emergency medications as needed. The date is unknown.”
Condon said she’s satisfied with the $2.2 million settlement, but the Condon family cannot treat these dollars as one would a lottery win. The money is put into a trust to benefit Autumn’s care and expenditures have to be approved by a probate judge.
But, the $2.2 million could have been avoided, “All I wanted was, I just wanted the kids to be safe. My child’s not on the bus anymore. I take her to school. But I still see the faces of the little children that I waved to every morning. You know, they’re still there. Not everybody can take their children to school, I’m lucky. But you know, some people rely on that transportation, and I just wanted it to be safe,” Condon said.
“I think they would have to have a law governing them, to make them do the right thing. I wish I could say, ‘Oh, yeah, they’ll 100% do the right thing, safety is of the utmost importance, but going through what we went through, we know that sometimes money can be of the utmost importance,” Condon told QCN.
Although the CCSD told QCN it’s required attendants on every special needs bus since 2020, Rep. Yow believes a state law would prevent the state’s 46 counties from making a decision to gamble the cost savings with the lives of special needs bus riders.
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.”Ken Buck, Chesterfield County School District spokesman
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.
We’ll continue to follow Yow’s bill as the legislature reconvenes in Columbia in January to begin a new session. It’s expected the bill will be sent to the education committee where lawmakers will debate the merits of the bill and would decide whether the bill survives that first hurdle. There is no date set for that to happen as of this report.