Bus driver, who struck blind student with autism, wasn't trained for special needs kids

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The Alpine School District is named in a lawsuit after a bus driver was captured on video assaulting a student with special needs. (Photo: KUTV)

School bus driver Gary Bertagnole had driven for the Alpine School District for about four years when he was asked to start transporting children who had disabilities.

In the first week, he ended up hitting and wrestling with an autistic student who was non-verbal and blind.

The incident, captured on video surveillance aboard the bus, has now lead to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the family by attorney Aaron Kinikini of the Utah Disability Law Center.

“It’s disturbing. It’s violent,” Kinikini said.

Read the complaint below or by clicking this link.

He says that not only did the driver hurt the child, but aides paid by the school district to care for the child made mistakes that also lead to violence. Kinikini claims the employees did not follow the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a comprehensive plan that includes the child’s disability, medication, triggers, and calming and soothing tools. The employees on multiple occasions either ignored the IEP, or never read it, he said.

For example, Kinikini says guidelines for this student state that she must be secured with a safety harness when she rides the bus. In the video, it is clear she is not.

Kinikini also says the actions of the bus driver and the aides demonstrate that they are not familiar with her behavior issues, like how when she is upset she pulls hair.

“So one of the aides, who has extremely long hair just hanging there for some temping thing for that child to grab and, in fact, she does grab it,” Kinikini said.

The student's IEP also says that counting down from 50 or singing can calm the child. Neither of the aides or the driver attempted to calm the child.

Our Beyond The Books unit looked into the training that school districts provide to employees. We found that it is federal law that employees who work with certain disabled children have read the child’s IEP, and individual districts also provide limited training.

In the Canyons School District paraprofessionals, those employees who work directly with students with disabilities, get chances for raises if they attend district held classes that include training regarding children with disabilities and behavior management.

Jeff Haney with Canyons School District says bus drivers receive a 90-minute training when they are hired that includes lessons on dealing with kids with disabilities.

In the Ogden School District, drivers get training on de-escalation strategies and basic classroom management.

In Millard, drivers spend an hour a year learning about working with students with disabilities. And in Alpine, the district for which Bertagnole worked, drivers get what the district calls “general technique training.” Alpine officials say in addition, drivers are briefed on each disabled child’s IEP.

Bertagnole was fired by the district. He says even though he talked to the child’s parents, he did not receive specific training to deal with children with disabilities. He says the outcome may have been different if he had been provided with more training.