Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Video Shows Dallas School Bus Driver Choking Student


DALLAS - A camera captured images of a mentally challenged-bipolar student being choked by a school bus driver in Dallas.

On a normal day, the Dallas County bus driver, Janet Pitts, would have a monitor on board to help with students like Xavier, a middle school student. But that wasn't the case one day in January. The monitor couldn't make it that day.

Within minutes of the bus pulling away from the school, Xavier began to act up by moving around the bus and shouting obscenities.

Watching the video, Pitts' patience begins to visibly wear out.

"I'm stopping to come get you," she said.

Xavier starts rapping and then throws a can at Pitts.

"You want me to beat you [expletive]?" Pitts can be heard yelling at Xavier. "You don't do that no more. You hear me? Don't do that no more. Sit down, do you understand?"

Back at the wheel, Pitts continues to voice her frustration.

"He threw a can up here, I got up and choked the [expletive] out of his [expletive]," she said.

Just weeks ago, News 8 set out with only the tape in hand to find out the details of the incident. Once News 8 found Xavier's family, it was discovered they were never informed of the incident.

For the first time, Xavier's mom - Claudia Nava - saw the video, which was recorded nine months ago. The same week of the incident, Nava reported scratches on her son. A Dallas County employee followed up but never told Nava the driver admitted to choking her son.

"It makes me really mad," Nava said.

Nava said she knows her son can be violent. She requested a monitor to be on board the bus for that very reason.

"I want everyone to understand he's not acting that way because he wants to," she said. "He just can't express himself."

Dale Kiser, with the National Education Association, says it isn't the driver's fault. Instead, he blames the system.

"It's been stated, documented [and] everything else that there should always be a monitor on this particular student on that bus," he said.

But the county disagrees.

"There was nothing that was written that said there had to be a monitor on that bus with that child," said Deanne Hullender, a spokeswoman for Dallas County Schools.

That's not true according to the special education department. Documents obtained by News 8 show "there was a request made [by special education] that there should be a monitor on the bus at all times due to this child's aggressive behavior."

However, getting that help isn't always easy. There are only 150 monitors for all 4,500 Dallas special education students.

Hiring more costs money the district doesn't have.

"The district pays for the monitors," said Rick Sorrells, Dallas County superintendent.

Documents show dozens of incidents where special education bus drivers were forced to take off without backup. That didn't help Pitts' case. She was terminated, but appealed the decision.

A note from the director of transportation dated back in April read "get this driver off a DISD bus." The board decided to reinstate Pitts in April.

As for why Nava wasn't given information about the incident, educators say they have to protect personnel matters by the book.

"That's privileged information," Kiser said. "That sort of thing isn't readily shared with anybody."

Now, seven months later - only after the family started asking questions and News 8 prepared to run a report - things changed. Last week, the board called a special meeting to terminate Pitts from the county. She resigned before that happened.

"God knows how many other incidents have happened," Nava said.

Tapes on board the Dallas County busses often don't work. VCRs have been reported out of order and tapes broken or missing.

"If it is bumpy, with the older technology, the tapes themselves could eject," Sorrells said.

At the cost of a million dollars, Dallas County does plan to upgrade each bus with better technology. It's something the superintendent says is a must after an incident like Xavier's.

"One of those is too many to have if we can't review it," he said.

Because of the incident, the county has changed its policies. Now, all special education bus drivers must be certified to properly restrain children. Monitors must also be present, even if it means an administrator has to hop on the bus at the last minute.

As for Pitts and the school district, neither would comment in relation to the story.