2021 | Schools

New trial dates set for former bus driver who sexually assaulted students

Trial will determine if Kabongo was criminally responsible for assaults

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A criminal responsibility trial has been scheduled for a former Montgomery County Public Schools bus driver accused of sexually assaulting students with special needs while driving his routes.

Etienne Kabongo, 65, was arrested in August 2018 and charged with molesting a 12-year-old girl a month earlier, an act that police said was caught on the bus’s surveillance camera.

He was later charged with sexually assaulting three other students on the bus.

When the incidents occurred, two of the students were ages 18 and 20; the third student was 12, according to county police.

Kabongo, of Gaithersburg, pleaded guilty but not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness one year ago, in January 2020. He pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse of a minor, and two counts of second-degree rape.

After several postponements mostly caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge scheduled a four-day jury trial to begin on Aug. 24.

The trial will be to determine if Kabongo is criminally responsible for the sexual assaults, based on his competency.

Circuit Court Judge Robert Greenberg ruled in July 2019 that Kabongo was competent to stand trial. An evaluation of Kabongo, conducted by Dr. Fred Berlin, determined that Kabongo has mental illness, his attorney, Jim Shalleck, said last year.

The initial investigation began in 2018 based on a parent’s complaint, a school district spokesman said at the time.

Charging documents filed in 2018 say the abuse occurred when the bus attendant got off the bus to help drop off a student in Silver Spring.

Kabongo used his hand to commit the assault, which was captured by a school bus camera, according to charging documents.

During an interview with a Montgomery County social worker, the victim said that her bus driver touched her inappropriately, that it hurt and that she cried, the charging documents state.

Kabongo had driven for MCPS since 2006, primarily transporting students receiving special education services.

In August, the family of a student who was sexually assaulted by Kabongo filed a lawsuit claiming the school district was negligent for not preventing the attack.

The lawsuit filed 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 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 the lawsuit, the girl’s family 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 family is asking for a jury trial and more than $675,000 in damages.

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