2021 | Schools

MCPS sued over bus driver’s 2018 sexual assault of special education student

Lawsuit is second alleging district was negligent in preventing attacks

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The family of a second student sexually assaulted by a Montgomery County Public Schools bus driver is suing the school district, claiming it was negligent in not preventing the attacks.

In the new lawsuit, filed last week in Montgomery County Circuit Court, the family of a student who was assaulted says MCPS could have prevented the girl’s assault if officials routinely reviewed footage from the school bus camera. It says MCPS should have known it needed to monitor bus drivers’ and attendants’ actions because there had been previous assaults on other buses.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala declined to comment on Thursday, citing pending litigation.

The family’s attorney, Michael Nakamura of Shulman Rogers, also declined to comment.

The new lawsuit is the second filed against the school district claiming it was negligent in preventing bus driver Etienne Kabongo from assaulting special education students.

The first lawsuit was filed in August. It was dismissed on Dec. 29.

In January 2020, Kabongo pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting three students on his bus route in 2018.

Kabongo, however, pleaded “not criminally responsible” for the assaults on the grounds that he has a mental illness. A trial is scheduled for August to determine his competency, which will affect how he is sentenced.

In 2016, MCPS entered an agreement with a Dallas, Texas-based company, Force Multiplier Solutions, to install cameras on its 1,300 school buses. Gradually, each bus was outfitted with 14 cameras — 10 on the exterior and four inside.

The primary goal of the cameras was to capture images and video of cars that pass buses stopped to pick up or drop off students. Passing a school bus that is stopped to pick up or drop off students is a traffic violation and carries a $500 fine in Maryland.

But the cameras were also intended to monitor the actions of students, drivers and others on the buses, according to the new lawsuit.

The interior cameras on the buses have a “live view” video stream, and video is archived on a server for several weeks.

Kabongo was investigated after a special education student on his bus told her parents on July 31, 2018, that he touched her inappropriately at a stop while the bus attendant walked another student to their front door.

It was discovered that he also assaulted two other students in the weeks leading up to the assault, including the girl whose family filed the newest lawsuit.

The girl’s family filed a lawsuit that details several previous sexual assaults that MCPS staff members committed against students. The history of wrongdoing and having a bus video system that would have documented Kabongo’s assaults proves MCPS was negligent in protecting the young girl, according to the lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, a consistent pattern of substandard policies and supervision of MCPS employees has become a common occurrence in Montgomery County, with the devastating result of MCPS employees sexually abusing students in the community,” the lawsuit says. “For years, MCPS has failed to properly address keeping students in their care and custody safe from sexual abuse at the hands of its own employees.”

The lawsuit also alleges that MCPS “knew that their employees’ interactions with students needed to be monitored” and “knew abuse was occurring on school buses.” So, the lawsuit says, MCPS enacted new policies and a “Ride by the Rules” campaign to promote safety and prevention of harassment on buses.

It also says the bus attendant on the bus acted against district policy by walking students to the door of their homes from the bus. The policy says attendants are only permitted to assist students in the immediate area of the bus, and not beyond the curb.

Leaving the bus created a window of opportunity during which Kabongo assaulted the students, the lawsuit said.

The family has asked for a jury trial and more than $450,000 in damages.

In the months following Kabongo’s arrest, MCPS officials and county police touted the bus camera program for protecting students’ safety.

During a school board committee meeting in September 2018, board member Pat O’Neill said the cameras “helped with the incident with the bus driver.” Then-police spokesman Capt. Thomas Didone said in an interview with Bethesda Beat at the time that the cameras “are supposed to deter behavior inside the bus like they do outside.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com