2020 | Schools

MCPS sued over sexual assault of special education students in 2018

Lawsuit says district had video of two assaults for weeks, could have prevented third attack

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The family of a student who was sexually assaulted by a Montgomery County special education bus driver has filed a lawsuit claiming the school district was negligent for not preventing the attack.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Montgomery County Circuit Court, says MCPS could have prevented the young girl’s assault if officials had reviewed footage from the school bus camera, which showed that the driver assaulted two students several weeks earlier, on the same route.

In a text message Wednesday night, School district spokesman Derek Turner declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation.

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.

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

In January, former bus driver Etienne 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 early 2021 to determine his competency, which will affect how he is sentenced.

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.

The lawsuit says the child screamed and cried during the assault, but nobody intervened.

“During her desperate attempts to alert someone for help, no MCPS employees came to her aid, no one monitored the bus so as to prevent Mr. Kabongo’s unlawful actions or to contact the police, and there were absolutely no procedures or protocols in place to keep her safe,” the lawsuit says.

The child told her parents about the assault when she got home. When discussing it with a social worker, the child drew a picture of herself and Kabongo, according to the lawsuit. In the picture, she was crying.

On Friday, the girl’s family filed the lawsuit, which details several previous sexual assaults against students committed by MCPS staff members. The history of wrongdoing and the access to the bus video system that could have unveiled Kabongo’s assaults proves MCPS was negligent in protecting the young girl, according to the lawsuit.

“The camera installation program turned out to be another in a long list of MCPS red herrings,” the lawsuit says. “This eyes-wide-shut policy did nothing to curb the abuse or assaults … leading to nothing but continued abuse followed only by more reckless and willful inaction by the (school system).”

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.

The families are asking for a jury trial and more than $675,000 in damages.

Attorney Jonathan Webb of Ethridge, Quinn, Kemp, Rowan & Hartinger declined to comment on the lawsuit on Wednesday.]

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.”

The lawsuit joins three others currently pending in the county court system, each alleging MCPS was negligent in preventing sexual assaults at its facilities or by its staff members.

The other three cases stem from sexual assaults that occurred among male student-athletes in unsupervised locker rooms at Damascus, Gaithersburg and Seneca Valley high schools.

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