LIBERTY CO., GA (WTOC) - How effective are the rules meant to protect your children while riding the bus to and from school?
A family is suing the Liberty County School District, saying the system didn't do enough to guarantee their children's safety while on the bus.
WTOC spoke with the mother of two young daughters about a traumatic experience they say happened on a school bus. He tells us what they hope a lawsuit against the school system accomplishes.
"I just, I really do not want this to happen again."
This is the mother of two girls who were students in the Liberty County School System up until the 2016-2017 school year. We're concealing her identity because of the nature of the incident and the ages of the children involved.
In the spring of 2016, her oldest daughter brought her news no parent wants to hear: That she and her younger sister had been sexually assaulted by another student on the bus.
"I fell to my knees on the back porch when my oldest daughter come in and told me, and what gets me is the little one had been trying to tell her that something was happening, and she didn't believe her until he actually, he got her a little bit worse than the little one," said the mother.
She immediately reached out to her children's school principal and a police report was filed soon after.
"It all happened very quickly," she said.
Police investigated, according to an incident report, and the family's lawyer says charges were filed within days. The family's lawsuit claims the high school student was eventually convicted in juvenile court last fall, charged on nine out of 10 counts of sexual battery and child molestation. The family's attorney says the teen is currently serving time in a juvenile detention center, but the story doesn't end there for the two sisters or their family.
"We had to leave because of safety. They didn't want to ride the bus. They didn't want to go to school anymore."
In the months following the trial and conviction, the family moved out of state and hired an attorney. That attorney sent a letter to the school district seeking damages, calling it a case of clear liability. In that letter and in the lawsuit, the attorney points out that the high school student, 15 years old at the time of the assault, had a documented history of sexually inappropriate behavior.
The family's lawyer, Seth Eisenberg, also notes those complaints were verified by Liberty County School System employees in the teen's criminal trial.
Eisenberg's lawsuit says there were at least five clear violations on the part of the school district that led to the two young girls' assault.
High school and middle school students aren't supposed to ride with elementary students. Also, drivers may not alter their routes. If they do, they have to check in with the routing coordinator. Drivers also aren't supposed to make any unauthorized stops while transporting students. Non-assigned students are not supposed to ride the bus without written permission from the student's parents and the approval of the local school principal. Lastly, school buses cannot have any unauthorized people on the bus at any time.
Eisenberg pulled those guidelines from the Liberty County Transportation Department Handbook. Following the sexual assault incident from the 2015-2016 school year, the district added a rule to the Student Safety Procedure section of the handbook, mandating that students are separated on the bus by gender and grade.
Currently, there are no statewide guidelines for student seating on buses. That's left up to each individual district.
Another issue the victim's family has is how the 15-year-old student ended up on the same bus as elementary-aged children. According to the family's attorney, the school system claimed the teen was authorized to be on the bus under the McKinney-Vento Act, which guarantees homeless students transportation to and from their school of origin for free. The Eisenberg Firm contests no paperwork was ever presented verifying the teen qualified for that claim, and that no legal basis exists justifying the unauthorized pickup of the student.
When they didn't get a response from the school district seeking a settlement, the family filed suit in March. Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Liberty County School District, along with four other individually named district employees including the transportation director and the bus driver of the route where the abuse happened.
We reached out to the chief academic officer for the school district about this particular case and was given this response:
"The district places a great deal of importance on the safety and security of all of our students. However, due to the potential of litigation in this particular matter, the district is unable to comment on specifics at this time," said Dr. Patti Crane, Chief Academic Officer, Liberty County School District
The school district also refused to confirm that a student was convicted, referring to privacy laws. The juvenile court and the police department said they could not confirm the details of any conviction involving a juvenile.
While they wait on a response from Liberty County Schools and the courts, the family says they will continue to hope for change and accountability so that what happened on that bus route never happens again to another child.
"They're hurt, permanently. It's done…scarred for life. This will spill over into every part of their life, forever."
The family filing suit says the Liberty County School District has until midnight tonight to respond to the claims, and if they claim no liability, they will enter into a discovery phase that could last up to six months.
As soon as get word from the family on what happens, we will pass that along.