Chaos reigns: Special needs child bullied on bus as aide screams for lost phone
As a nonverbal student in Manatee County, 5-year-old Anabelle Hunting could only scream as another student pulled her hair and slapped her face during a bus ride on April 19.
Her mother, Lauren Lardieri, said officials at Robert H. Prine Elementary School failed to notify her of the incident until April 30, more than a week later. Her family paid the district about $60 for a redacted copy of video taken by a camera on the bus. Lardieri provided a copy of the video to the Bradenton Herald on Thursday.
"I just feel like I have to be the voice for my daughter because she can't express herself the way she wants to," Lardieri said.
She said her daughter has developmental delays, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy and mixed receptive-expressive language disorder.
The bus attendant, 20-year-old D'Mari Martin, had no experience working on a bus. She started the job about two weeks before the district served her a letter of termination on April 20, a day after the incident.
In an email on Thursday, district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum acknowledged a delay in contacting the mother.
"Regrettably, there was late communication between the school and the parent of the student, based upon miscommunication and the belief that the parent had been informed of the incident," he said. "Once that miscommunication came to light, the parent was immediately notified."
Based on what district officials told her, Lardieri believes the apparent bully was a non-disabled student who rode the bus with her sibling. It seems, she said, the student was suspended and later returned to the bus.
Teitelbaum, citing student privacy laws, said he could not comment further.
The video shows other students throwing Hunting's plush dolphin toy around the bus as Martin walked up and down the aisle, searching for her lost phone. One student reached over her seat and pulled on Hunting's hair — the first sign of what would soon follow.
Hunting hit another student with her plush dolphin. "Hey, it wasn't me," the student responded. Hunting continued to scream and cry as the bus attendant walked back into the camera's view.
"OK, calm down," she said. "Where is my phone?"
As Hunting screamed at the top of her lungs, many of the other students followed, creating chaos as Martin demanded her phone. She then grabbed Hunting's backpack and searched it while the girl wiped her face with the dolphin toy.
Another student called Martin's phone to help with the search.
"You all finna see a real ugly side of me if I don't find my phone," Martin can be heard saying.
She continued up and down the aisle, her voice growing louder by the second, until the bus came to a stop. Students walked around the bus and climbed over seats as a group soon formed around Hunting.
The student who originally pulled Hunting's hair then turned around and appeared to hit the girl's face three times. The bus attendant eventually found her phone, and the girl hit Hunting one more time before the video ends.
"I couldn't even watch the whole thing," her mother said. "It just made me sick to my stomach."
Speaking outside her home on Thursday afternoon, Martin said she felt overwhelmed as a bus attendant. She grew even more frustrated when her phone seemed to disappear.
Martin said she lost control in the chaos, and that she was unaware of the brewing altercation.
"I'm not that kind of person," she said.
The district hired Martin on a probationary 10-month contract for $10.50 an hour, according to her personnel file.
She completed a drug test on March 21, her fingerprints were taken a day later, and the state Department of Children and Families issued her a certificate in "identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect" on April 4.
It seems the district's transportation department struggles with staffing issues and its buses, specifically the ones meant for students who have disabilities. In a recent presentation titled "Transportation Overview," the department listed "ESE Units" as an obstacle.
ESE, or exceptional student education, describes the services provided to students living with disabilities in Florida. The transportation department also struggled with an average of 26 absent employees every day during the 2017-18 school year, according to the overview.
The district's director of transportation and vehicle maintenance, Jason Harris, presented the information at Tuesday's school board workshop. He did not respond to an email or phone call on Thursday.
Hunting's mother said the incident should serve as a warning for other parents.
"I'm sure bullying happens all the time," Lardieri said. "The more people are aware of it and seeing it actually happen to kids, especially kids with special needs, I feel like parents would take more precaution and pay more attention to aides on the bus and the school district."