(WXYZ) — Jaime Nelson can never forget her son’s screams for help that were captured on video after a bus aide hit her special needs son. The aide was recently convicted of child abuse, but Nelson says the school hid the incident from her for five weeks.
Now she’s taking on Ann Arbor Public Schools to get to the truth and protect other families.
“Our job is to protect our kids. And the school didn’t give me that chance because they hid it from me,” Nelson told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
Nelson says it took her weeks to learn what happened to her 7-year-old on his school bus.
Even now, 18 months after the assault, Nelson says still doesn’t have answers or an apology from the district.
“It can’t happen again. I am disgusted that it happened once, and I’m fearful that there’s no reason it would change if someone didn’t come forward,” said Nelson, a long-time educator.
Nelson’s son is autistic and severely emotionally impaired. Back in December of 2021, she fought to get him into a special education program at Carpenter Elementary. But after his first day, when the second grader got off the school bus for special ed students, Nelson knew something was seriously wrong.
Web Extra | Jaime Nelson
“He ran past me, ran in the house, slammed the door and actually locked me out- something he has never done in his life. And the bus aide gets off the bus and she is worked up and she said, ‘They say I can’t hit him. So I don’t know what you want me to do,’” said Nelson.
Nelson says she was stunned by that statement and asked why the aide hadn’t been told that her son was special needs, especially because each of the kids on that bus are in the same special education program.
“She would call me and say, ‘I’m about to videotape him and show you what he’s doing.’ And then she would threaten him while she was on the phone with me saying things like, ‘You’re going to have trouble when you get home.’ And I said, ‘that doesn’t work with him,’” said Nelson.
Nelson says she immediately alerted the school about the bus aide and her son’s intense reaction to the bus rides. She says she wasn’t told for 5 weeks that what really happened just days after he started at the new school was an alarming assault that was caught on video. The video shows Bus Aide Rochanda Jefferson aggressively slamming the child into a seat. She then puts him in a STAR harness, something Nelson says is illegal for her son because it’s not in his IEP.
Full school bus video
In the video, you can see the aide hit the child multiple times while he’s restrained. Then the terror for the boy continues as he tries to get away and gets caught in the harness straps, suspending the child upside down. The child shrieks for several minutes, and the aide, standing over him while he struggles, says to him: “No you did this.”
“I don’t know how anyone in the world couldn’t help a child and she stood there, and she said, ‘I’m not going to help you. You’ve got yourself into this,’” said Nelson.
Once the boy frees himself, the aide then tells the bus full of special needs students that they could all go to jail.
“That’s OK he’s going to jail. You’re old enough to go to jail. You don’t have to be no certain age to go to jail, they got childrens jail for kids,” said the aide.
Even though she kept asking teachers questions about her son’s extreme distress after bus rides, Nelson says it took more than a month for Carpenter Elementary’s principal to reveal in an email that there “have been two incidents shared that have resulted in unsafe conditions” for her son and other students on the bus. Nelson asked to see video of the ‘incidents’ but was only allowed to see the footage of one incident from December 14, 2021 — months later after the police got involved.
“He didn’t get on that bus. Adults in authority who could have saved him, put him on that bus and told him to walk up those stairs, with that woman still there,” said Nelson.
Nelson says she later learned that several special ed students on that bus told their teachers and social workers at the school right away about the assault, yet Nelson says nothing was done after that was reported to the school principal. That’s why she feels now she has no choice but to sue the district, the bus company, and the principal.
Megan Bonanni and Danielle Canepa are Nelson’s attorneys.
“What stands out to me about this case is the indifference of the school administrators when they became aware of the reports from children about the abuse of the child in this case,” said Canepa. “The administrators waited five weeks to alert the mother or take any significant action.”
“Our concern is that if this had happened on a bus carrying a general population of students, there would have been emails sent district wide. The aide would have been immediately taken off of the bus and an investigation would have ensued,” said Bonanni.
Nelson and her attorneys say they want to see the laws improved in Michigan to keep kids safe.
Bonanni says they want “protection for children from the moment they walk into the doors of the school until they walk into the doors of their home, and this didn’t happen here in our most vulnerable population of students.”
Nelson says she’s grateful the bus aide was convicted and won’t be able to work with kids again, but she says her son’s trauma is still ever-present.
“The world is already hard for him. It’s hard for special needs kids. It’s hard for autistic kids. It’s hard for kids that don’t have all the tools that a neurotypical kid has. And the last thing he needs is one more thing. The last thing he needs is another trauma, another reason to mistrust people. Another reason to be scared in this world,” said Nelson.
“The safety of students and staff is always the top priority of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Staff at Carpenter Elementary and the transportation team followed appropriate procedures in responding to this unfortunate incident. AAPS and Durham Transportation team removed the offending individual from duty on the day the incident was observed on the video and contacted Child Protective Services immediately. There was no delay in removing the individual from duty, and AAPS and Durham teams dutifully followed through on this case up to and including a member of the Durham staff testifying at a hearing in recent weeks,” said Andrew Cluley, AAPS Director of Communications in a statement.
A spokesman for the bus company, Durham Transportation, sent the 7 Investigator this statement:
“Safety is our priority, and we can confirm that we took prompt action by removing the former aide on the same day the incident was observed on the video. Immediately after, we contacted both our customer and Child Protective Services. The Ann Arbor Public Schools team and our team collaborated closely throughout, and we fully cooperated with local authorities throughout the process.”
We have also reached out the bus aide and her attorney for comment, but so far we have not heard back.