City faces suit over girl left on bus. Family seeks $1 million

An attorney representing the family of a 5-year-old special needs kindergarten girl left unattended on a parked Gloucester school bus for two hours in sub-freezing temperatures in January has filed a notice of a pending lawsuit seeking $1 million over the school district’s handling of the incident.

Attorney Joseph Orlando sent the notice on Wednesday to Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken and Superintendent Richard Safier, citing his intention to file claims on behalf of the girl, identified only as Jane Doe for “personal injuries” and other hardships, and for her mother, named as Catherine Doe, noting that school officials did not properly notify the family as the Jan. 15 incident played out.

According to state statutes, the city and school district have up to six months to respond to the claims in Orlando’s notice, and the plaintiffs cannot file a lawsuit during that time.

Safier, saying both Monday and Wednesday that he was acting “on the advice of counsel,” declined to comment on the incident, other than to confirm that some employees tied to the incident had been disciplined.

Gloucester police reports indicate that the bus driver, identified as Linda Burke, and the bus monitor, Joycelynn Rowe, were placed on administrative leave in January pending an in-house investigation. School transportation director Kathy Verga confirmed Thursday that both have since been dismissed from their posts. She also declined any further comment.

Gloucester police Detective Sean Conners submitted his report to the office of Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett to be considered for potential criminal action.

Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for the DA’s office, confirmed Thursday that no charges are pending.

“It was referred by Gloucester police and the schools,” she said. “We reviewed it, and at this time, did not find that the actions rise to the level of a crime.”

The incident played out on a Thursday morning, according to police and school reports, when the temperature hovered around 29 degrees.

Gloucester police reports filed separately by Conners and Patrolman Steve Lamberis detail how the child, who is autistic, was taken by her mother to her regular East Gloucester bus stop between 8:10 and 8:15 a.m. to be taken to her class at East Gloucester School. The bus arrived at the school at 8:20, according to the report.

At the time, the bus driver and monitor, identified as Burke and Rowe, respectively, were dealing with two student passengers who were misbehaving. Rowe told the students that all but the two unruly students could exit the bus.

She then escorted the two misbehaving students off the bus. The bus, however, returned to the O’Maley Innovation Middle School parking lot “without conducting a drop-off check ensuring all students were off the bus,” Conners’ report said. The report states that monitor Rowe was dropped off at the Fuller School parking lot because she lives nearby.

At 10:30 a.m., Conners’ report states, a different driver and monitor boarded the bus and found the girl still buckled into her assigned seat. The pair notified Verga and brought the girl to the transportation office on Blackburn Drive. There, the girl was “brought inside and comforted,” the report states. Verga notified Safier, who directed Verga to transport the girl back to East Gloucester School and to have her seen by the school nurse, Tamara Normand.

The report states that Verga then drove the girl in her vehicle back to the bus, and the bus left O’Maley and returned to East Gloucester School, arriving between 11:15 and 11:30 a.m. The girl was met by principal Carol Bratt, and was seen by Normand. While Conners’ report indicates that the girl complained of “cold hands,” Normand found that the girl was “her normal self,” the report states.

The girl then spent the rest of the school day in her classroom, and was taken home via her regular bus that afternoon.

Throughout the process, Conners’ report states, “no calls to parents were made,” due in large part to a mixup in the taking of attendance in the classroom, headed by teacher Pam Jacobsen. The girl’s mother was not notified of the incident until she received a call from Bratt at 11:59 a.m., according to the reports.

The girls’ parents then took her in their own vehicle to Addison Gilbert Hospital, where she was treated and then released.

Reached at her Gloucester home, Burke, the bus driver, declined to comment on the incident or her ouster.

“I’m not talking,” she said Friday. “I’m too upset, it’s done a job on me, and I’m not talking.”

A number listed for Rowe came back Thursday as a line that had been disconnected. At East Gloucester School, Normand said she had no comment, while principal Bratt did not return calls.

According to Orlando’s filing, the school district’s “negligence” calls for a settlement of $100,000, the maximum award allowed. The added settlement sought comes from what he claims is the district’s attempt to “cover up” the incident.

That stems in large part from police reports that outline what happened when the girl arrived at the school.

According to Conners’ report, school nurse Normand indicated that she had seen the girl at approximately 11:30 a.m., after Bratt had asked to have the girl checked. Normand, however, also told police that the principal had asked her to change the time on her nurse’s report to 10:30 as opposed to 11:30, and she did so.

The same paragraph in the report, however, also notes that Normand believed Bratt was “confused about the time and changed it back to 11:30. And Bratt stated that she had been wrong about the time, and “did not maliciously ask the nurse to change the time on the report, as she thought it was 12:30 a.m. as opposed to 11:30 a.m.”

“She further reported being frustrated that there were two times on the report,” Conners report concludes.

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at [email protected].

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