The Disability Law Center, based in Salt Lake City, filed two separate civil rights lawsuits Thursday on behalf of two disabled children. The lawsuits claim the students allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of staff in the Alpine School District.
Aside from claims against the Alpine School District and individual employees, the lawsuits allege that the Utah State Board of Education violated federal law by failing to provide oversight, monitoring, rule-making and rule enforcement within the Utah public school system, exposing students with disabilities to physical dangers.
The first suit, Turner v. Alpine Sch. Dist., Utah State Board of Education, et al., alleges a 16-year-old blind student with autism who attends Horizon School was “brutally assaulted” by a school bus driver multiple times over the course of several days. According to the lawsuit, the student endured blows to the head, slaps to the face and hands, painful twisting of her arms and fingers, and verbal taunts from the bus driver as he carried out the physical abuse. The lawsuit alleges multiple district aides witnessed these incidents and failed to intervene, and also failed to report what they saw to district administrators, law enforcement or the child’s parents.
Video and audio evidence of these incidents were captured via the school bus security camera, according to court documents.
The lawsuit also claims that although the board of education requires school staff who interact with children with disabilities undergo training, neither the bus driver nor the aides who were present during the physical assaults have undergone such training. The lawsuit alleges the board of education “consistently fails” to provide adequate oversight and enforcement of Utah school districts’ compliance with federal law, and asserts that through inaction, the board has contributed to an atmosphere where such abuse is not only possible but likely to occur.
According to the lawsuit, the actions and failures of the named defendants in the suit violated the child’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the fundamental rights of the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The second suit, Keller v. Alpine Sch. Dist., Utah State Board of Education, et al., alleges a 10-year-old child with multiple disabilities who attended Dan Peterson School, a segregated school intended exclusively for children with disabilities was subjected to unlawful and shocking “behavior interventions,” including being deprived of food and water, being strapped to a “Rifton Chair” for hours at a time, and having his hands bound behind his back with twine. According to court documents, several of the incidents were corroborated by board-certified behavioral analysts from Utah Behavior Services who were present in the classroom.
The lawsuit states these punishments were carried out by a special education teacher and other district staff. The complaint identifies alleged district-wide failures to adequately train staff who serve students with disabilities and state-wide systemic failures by the board of education to oversee, monitor and enforce functions. Similar to the Turner lawsuit, the plaintiff in this second lawsuit is seeking a range of injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief for violations of the same acts and amendments previously stated.
“The fact that these appalling incidents of abuse occurred in the same district at roughly the same time is an obvious indictment of some disturbing local deficiencies, but it also speaks to a larger, system-wide failure that places our most vulnerable children in harm’s way each time they board a school bus or enter a public school,” said Aaron Kinikini, Disability Law Center legal director in a press release. “Utah simply has to do better, and the children whose parents have courageously brought these lawsuits certainly deserve better. Accountability and meaningful reform are their goals, and should be ours as well.”
Alpine School District was contacted Thursday for comment on the two lawsuits.
The lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Utah. Both lawsuits name the Alpine School District, the Alpine School District Board of Education, Superintendent Samuel Y. Jarman, Special Education Director Ryan Berke, the Utah State Board of Education and State of Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson as defendants. The Turner suit also names Gary Bertagnole, a bus driver, and three “Jane Does” as defendants. The Keller suit names special education teacher Tarra Anderson and five “Jane Does” as defendants. Both children are being represented by their fathers, Greg Turner and Adam Keller, respectively.
Anderson is currently listed as a kindergarten special education teacher at Sharon Elementary on the school’s website, and is not listed as a staff member of the Dan Peterson School on its respective website.
According to school board meeting minutes from Sept. 11, 2018, Bertagnole resigned as a bus driver, after hired in August 2017, and was replaced by Sept. 10, 2018.