Timing of report of assault on special-needs teen by bus aide questioned
YOUNGSTOWN — Bill Whitacre, Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabilities superintendent, declined to comment Wednesday on why there was a gap of about a week between when former Leonard Kirtz School bus aide Patricia Bennett assaulted a student and when an investigation began.
Whitacre said he would not discuss it because the matter involves pending litigation.
But testimony during Bennett’s trial Tuesday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court indicated the impetus for now-retired MCBDD investigator Blase Brush to review bus security video and discover Bennett’s misconduct was an anonymous letter to the board asking officials to look into the matter because it had been “swept under the rug.”
A jury on Tuesday found Bennett guilty of felony assault and misdemeanor child endangering and falsification for a Jan. 6, 2020, incident on the Leonard Kirtz School bus where Bennett worked. The school, in Austintown, is run by the MCBDD.
Bennett, 59, of Jackson Street in Warren, was taken to the Mahoning County jail after Judge Maureen Sweeney read the verdict and revoked Bennett’s bond. No sentencing date has been set. Bennett could get up to 18 months in prison.
Trial testimony indicated that Bennett assaulted the student, 17, after the student hurriedly got on the bus at the end of the school day and brushed by Bennett, leading to contact between the two. It caused Bennett to “reach out to push or grab (the student), he went at her, and she proceeded to punch him several times,” Assistant Prosecutor Rob Andrews said during the trial.
The boy’s family filed suit in August 2020, seeking damages for the boy’s pain and suffering and alleged that several school employees responded to or witnessed parts of the incident but “no incident report was filed,” and the boy’s family was not notified.
The case was set for an 11 a.m. virtual hearing Wednesday involving the parties, including insurance representatives. The hearing was being conducted by Magistrate James Melone, who works for Judge Anthony D’Apolito of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
The case is set for a jury trial March 1, 2022.
The board responded to the allegations in the lawsuit, stating that the boy’s family was notified of the incident “on the date that it occurred” and denies that no report was filed. Brush testified at the trial that he was made aware of the incident the next day, but it was only portrayed as a behavioral issue involving the student, not an assault.
One of Bennett’s convictions was for making a false written statement Jan. 6, 2020, regarding the details of the assault.
The student is on the autism spectrum and is not very verbal, witnesses testified. His mother testified that her son did not tell her about the incident.
The suit alleges that the MCBDD concealed the incident and allowed Bennett to continue to work as a bus aide and “have access to children, including” the student involved in the assault.
The MCBDD response confirms that Bennett continued to work after the incident and had access to other children but denies that she had access to the student involved. After Brush reviewed bus security videos, Bennett was placed on administrative leave, according to court testimony. She is no longer employed by MCBDD, but Whitacre declined to say whether Bennett was fired.
The board denied that the incident was “intentionally not reported in a timely and accurate manner” and denied the allegation that the actions of the board’s employees were “negligent, reckless and/or wanton in failing to take reasonable actions to prevent the physical assault and abuse of (the student) by failing to report the abuse to the required statutory authorities.”
During Tuesday’s trial, the driver of the bus the day of the Jan. 6, 2020, incident, Charles Cornelius, testified to leaving the driver’s seat of the bus, walking to where Bennett had the student pinned to the floor and telling her to get off of the student, but she would not.
Waymond Grace, MCBDD transportation superintendent, testified that he was on a nearby bus and got on the bus where the confrontation took place to see Bennett on top of the student. He ordered her, “Get off of him.” Her actions were not part of the training workers get, Grace said.
Grace saw the bus security videos the first time about a week after the incident, Grace said.
When Whitacre was asked Wednesday whether Cornelius or Grace have been disciplined for their actions, he said he would “prefer not to discuss” that either. Grace still works for the MCBDD, but Cornelius does not, Whitacre said.
In its written response to the lawsuit, the board denied the allegation that its employees “lacked the qualifications, training, knowledge and skills to perform their jobs in a reasonably safe manner” and denied that the board “negligently hired, employed and continued to employ” Bennett.
The board acknowledged in its response that Bennett “touched” the student Jan. 6, 2020, but it stated that the family’s claims are “barred in whole or in part” by the “contributory and / or comparative negligence” of the student.
The board stated that “to the extent that the (student) sustained any injuries or damages or losses, which (the MCBDD) denies, those injuries, damages or losses were the result of intervening and / or superseding acts over which the (board) had no control, nor any duty to control.”
Prosecutors have said the student did not suffer any physical injuries.
The board denied the allegation in the lawsuit that the student “has been forced to suffer various injuries and damages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, mental trauma, permanent injury, significant and ongoing medical treatment and expenses and loss of enjoyment of life.”
Brush retired from his investigator’s job earlier this year, Whitacre said.