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Ex-bus aide found guilty

Convicted of felony assault on a student

Staff photo / Ed Runyan Attorney Michael Rossi, left, sits with Patricia Bennett in the courtroom of Judge Maureen Sweeney of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Tuesday during Bennett’s assault trial.

YOUNGSTOWN — Former bus aide Patricia A. Bennett, 59, was convicted Tuesday of felony assault for punching a student on a bus at the Leonard Kirtz School in Austintown, which is run by the Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

After the judge read guilty verdicts, a deputy handcuffed Bennett. Judge Maureen Sweeney revoked Bennett’s bond, and Bennett was taken to the Mahoning County jail. No sentencing date was announced. Bennett could get up to 18 months in prison.

At the time of the Jan. 6, 2020, incident, students were getting on the bus at the end of the school day. The student, then 17, who is on the autism spectrum, got onto the bus and hurriedly walked toward the back, as he typically does, prosecutors said.

Part way back, he brushed past Bennett, who was standing up in the aisle, Assistant Prosecutor Rob Andrews said in opening statements. It caused Bennett to “reach out to push or grab (the student), he went at her, and she proceeded to punch him several times,” Andrews said.

It was captured on video, but the student, who was not physically injured, has limited verbal skills and did not tell his parents about it. The matter did not get much attention at the time — until an MCBDD investigator was alerted to the incident about a week later in an anonymous letter and secured the bus video.

After viewing it, he advised administrators that it was a potential abuse case, and Bennett was placed on administrative leave pending a full investigation.

Bennett, of Jackson Street SW in Warren, also was convicted of misdemeanor child endangering and misdemeanor falsification after a single day of testimony before Judge Maureen Sweeney of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.

The child endangering offense means Bennett “violated her duty of care, protection or support” of a child under age 18 over whom she she had “custody or control.”

The student’s parents filed suit in August 2020, seeking damages for pain and suffering. The suit, which names the MCBDD, Bennett and others as defendants, is pending in common pleas court. It is set for trial March 1, 2022, in front of a different judge.

Prosecutors called several MCBDD employees to testify Tuesday, including the driver of the bus, the busing superviser who was in another bus nearby, the boy’s mother and his teacher.

But the witness with the most to say was Blase Brush, who investigated the incident for the MCBDD and referred it to the Austintown Police Department, who then filed charges against Bennett.

Even though the jury viewed the bus videos, there was not common agreement about what the video showed.

Brush said his review of the video’s four camera angles indicated that Bennett actually caused the collision between herself and the student. She saw the student as he entered the bus and “greeted” him, Brush testified. Bennett had her back to the student but could still see him, Brush said.

“To me, I see the defendant making contact with (the student.) I see her actually lunge out and walk into the aisleway of the bus to make contact with him,” Brush said.

“From my observation, I did not see (the student) make the initial contact. The initial contact was made by the defendant Patricia Bennett.”

Defense attorney Michael Rossi, during cross examination, asked Brush how Bennett could have initiated the contact when she had her back turned.

“Her eyes were turned, looking back,” Brush said.

Brush said Bennett and all MCBDD employees who work with agency students are trained annually in how to restrain students safely and how to de-escalate situations “to avoid or minimize the need for having to put your hands on an individual to restrain him.”

Bennett’s actions were “not even close” to what employees are taught to do when dealing with a student, Brush said.

After investigating the incident, Brush turned over the matter to the Austintown Police Department, which filed the charges against Bennett.

Brush said the incident was reported initially as being about misbehavior by the student, so he did not review the video and discover the true nature of the incident until the letter arrived.

Bennett testified as the final witness of the trial, saying she worked as a bus aide 16 years. She has cared for her own autistic son, who is 37, throughout his life, she said.

She testified to the different statements she gave about the incident. Her first statement was short and only said that after the boy got on the bus, “I spoke with (the student) to try to calm him down.”

A second statement was longer and said the student bumped her, she pushed him, he “came after” her and she “tried to calm him down,” according to her testimony.

The falsification conviction was for giving false information on the day of the incident.

The bus driver, Charles Cornelius, said after the student got on the bus, he realized there was “going to be an altercation,” unbuckled his seat belt and went toward Bennett and the student. Both were on the floor. Cornelius said Bennett “had the student pinned on the floor.” He told her to get off of the student, but she did not.

Bennett was not using techniques workers are taught to handle situations like that with students, he said.

Also testifying was Waymond Grace, MCBDD transportation superintendent, who was in the driver’s seat of the bus ahead of the one where the conflict took place. He said he was alerted something was going on when he saw Cornelius get out of his bus.

Grace said when he got onto the bus, he saw Bennett over top of someone on the floor. “I said ‘Get off of him,'” Grace said. What she was doing was not part of the training workers get, he said.

“I told her she needed to let him up to see if he was OK,” Grace said. “She said he was still confrontational.” When Bennett got off of the student, the student “came to me and gave me a hug,” Grace said.

Grace said he saw the videos the first time about a week after the incident.

A call to Bill Whittacre, MCBDD superintendent, late Tuesday regarding the trial was not returned.

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