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Disabilities board pays $50K in abuse suit

YOUNGSTOWN — The Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabilities and a student who was assaulted in January 2020 on a MCBDD bus outside of the board’s Leonard Kirtz School in Austintown, settled a lawsuit filed by the student by paying him $50,000.

The student sued the board and former MCBDD employee Patricia A. Bennett of Warren in August 2020, for an incident Jan. 6, 2020, in a school bus in which Bennett, a bus aide, assaulted the student.

Bennett was convicted in a criminal trial in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court of felony assault and misdemeanor child endangerment and falsification in the incident.

Judge Maureen Sweeney sentenced Bennett in October 2021 to 60 days in the Mahoning County jail with 38 days credit for time already served in the jail prior to being sentenced.

Bennett also was sentenced to three years of post-release control through the Mahoning County Adult Parole Authority and was ordered to complete 10 days of community service and engage in anger management counseling.

As a result of her conviction, Bennett also was no longer allowed to be employed in working with people with developmental disabilities.

THE INCIDENT

Prosecutors said that on the day of the incident, the student, 17, a Leonard Kirtz student who is on the autism spectrum, got onto the bus and hurriedly walked toward the back, as he typically did.

He brushed past Bennett, who was standing up in the aisle, county Assistant Prosecutor Rob Andrews said during opening statements in the trial. 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 surveillance video, but the student, who was not physically injured, had limited verbal skills and did not tell his parents about it.

The matter did not get much attention at the time — until then-MCBDD investigator Blase Brush was alerted to the incident about a week later because of an anonymous letter sent to the MCBDD Superintendent Bill Whitacre.

Brush 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 an investigation.

During Bennett’s sentencing hearing, the boy’s mother in court told Sweeney it took time for her son to return to normal after the incident. She said she hoped Bennett’s convictions would “change (Bennett’s) mind, change her ways.” She said her son was doing “OK.”

THE LAWSUIT

The lawsuit alleged that multiple MCBDD employees witnessed or responded to the incident, but no report was filed, and the boy’s family was not notified of the incident until Jan. 14, 2020, after an anonymous tip was mailed to Whitacre.

In a written response to allegations in the lawsuit, the MCBDD stated that the boy’s family was notified of the incident “on the date that it occurred,” and the board denied that no report was filed.

Brush testified in the criminal trial he was made aware of the incident the next day after it happened, but it was portrayed only 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.

According to documents in the civil case in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, the civil suit was dismissed — with prejudice — in March 2022. With prejudice means it cannot be refiled. The filing did not provide any details of the settlement.

But following a Vindicator public records request to the MCBDD, the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office provided a copy of the settlement agreement from the lawsuit. It was between the MCBDD and the boy’s guardian.

It states that in exchange for $50,000 to the boy and his guardian, the boy and his guardian discharged the board and its employees “from any liability, negligence, claims, demands, damages … actions, liens, promises, trespasses, judgments, executions, accountings, causes of action of every kind, claims and administrative actions.”

The boy and his guardian also agreed “to destroy any and all copies of the bus videos related to this incident that occurred on Jan. 6, 2020, or any reports subject to the protective order in this matter that is in her possession.” The guardian agreed to “direct her counsel to destroy any copy in their possession and any other person known to her to have possession of these bus videos.”

The guardian also agreed to dismiss the lawsuit, and Bennett agreed to dismiss the counterclaim she filed in the suit.

The agreement was reached as “a compromise of disputed claims, and the parties make no admission of liability or wrongdoing regarding the subject matter of the lawsuit, known or unknown, arising out of or in any way connected with the occurrence(s) which is the subject of the lawsuit,” the agreement states.

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