She was sitting in the back of the school bus when she became agitated and started to lose control.
The teenage girl, who is autistic, nonverbal and blind, among other disabilities, often had small attacks like this when there was a disruption, her family said. She would throw out her arms, hit her head and scream in order to cope. But, after a few minutes, she usually calmed down if someone sang to her or counted down from 50.
On this particularly bumpy ride, though, in June 2018 — when a loud noise startled her — she began to panic. And none of the nearby aides seemed to know what to do.
As she cried for help, the bus driver pulled into the school parking lot and walked back to where she was sitting. Video surveillance shows him grabbing the girl by the wrists, bending them toward her shoulders, and turning her body hard into her seat, twisting her onto her stomach.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” he asked. The girl wailed out in pain and tried to push him away. He slapped her on the side of the head.
“I don’t expect to wrestle with you every damn time,” the driver said, audible on the recording of the confrontation.
The girl, 16, is a student at Horizon School in Saratoga Springs, which holds classes for those with special needs. Her parents are now suing the school district, its superintendent, the special education director there and the driver for discrimination and abuse following the attack.
They say there was at least one other incident where the man, Gary Bertagnole, targeted the girl. And, they allege, the driver was never trained to work with students with disabilities. Bertagnole, reached Thursday, said the video is misleading because it does not show what was happening before he stepped in.
Greg Turner, the girl’s father, is representing her in the civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, where the minor is not named. Their attorneys shared clips of the video they got from Alpine School District showing the two incidents. It is filed under seal with the court to protect the girl and others students’ identities.
The footage from the first incident is time stamped at 11:43 a.m. and shows Turner’s daughter sitting with other kids. She panics and hits the hand of one of the aides sitting by her. Then Bertagnole charges back to intervene. “Not on my bus!” he shouts. “Can you behave? I need a ‘yes’ out of you.” He then hits her.
In a second video from June 14, 2018 from around 8 a.m., he similarly smacks her. As he tries to restrain the girl, he calls her “an ornery little cuss,” tells her to behave and punches the back of her head and her face. She cries and screams. A different nearby aide says, “This is ridiculous.”
Each encounter lasts for a few minutes. “It’s child abuse,” said Aaron Kinikini, the legal director at the Disability Law Center, who is representing the family in the case.
The school district emailed a written response, saying it has not yet been served with the lawsuit. But, spokeswoman Kimberly Bird added, “in matters of litigation, we would not likely be at liberty to discuss with the public.”
Bertagnole, when reached by The Salt Lake Tribune, said the video has been clipped to cut out what happened prior to his intervention. He said the girl was ripping out the aide’s hair in clumps and pulling her head. Some of that is shown in the footage.
“They’re deleting that part of the video,” he said. “It’s unbelievable the lies they tell and how they’re portraying the situation. That girl was totally out of control and I had to take control somehow.”
Bertagnole said maybe he should have called police or handled it differently, but said he was trying to protect the aide. “I am who I am and I did what I did,” he added. “I didn’t even get angry. Now they’re destroying my life.”
He resigned his position on June 15, 2018, shortly after the second interaction with the girl during summer school. He had been with the district for five years and was making roughly $15,000 annually in the position, according to documents from Alpine. The second confrontation with the girl was his third day on the new route.
The driver added: “They’re portraying it as bus driver abuse and it’s bull----. If anything, it was abuse on the girl’s part. I had no idea what the hell was going on with this girl. She just come off for no reason. She came unglued. … Those children become professional manipulators, and you have to correct them. When they receive correction, they usually appreciate it when they understand. And they do understand a hell of a lot more then we give them credit for.”
Alpine School District in Utah County has more than 80,000 students. About 7,900 — or 10% — have disabilities. At Horizon School, all of the roughly 100 kids there do.
The Disability Law Center filed a second lawsuit on Thursday, also against Alpine School District, in a separate case involving another student with disabilities, who is nonverbal and has epilepsy, cortical dysplasia, anxiety and autism. That student, a 10-year-old boy, was allegedly abused at Dan Peterson School, which is also for students with special needs and has about 230 students.
The suit alleges he was deprived of food and water in an effort to shape his behavior. And, at times, it states, his hands were tied behind his back and he was strapped into chairs by his special education teacher and other staff. There is no video of the incidents, unlike with the Turners’ case, but witnesses and a substitute teacher came forward to report.
“You can almost not make this stuff up," Kinikini said. He believes both cases show that Alpine District doesn’t know how to properly work with students with disabilities and doesn’t train staff. “The fact that these appalling incidents of abuse occurred in the same district at roughly the same time is an obvious indictment of some disturbing local deficiencies,” he added.
In the case involving the Turners’ daughter, the lawsuit claims, the district purposefully “segregated” the girl from other kids even though she could have gone to a regular middle school.
They’re suing for alleged violations of the Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which both provide protections for students with disabilities and require they have access to education with necessary accommodations. The Keller family from the second case is doing the same, as well as focusing on constitutional violations.
Meanwhile, the Turner family had a written and signed care plan filed with the district for their daughter. It had listed “specific de-escalation and behavior management techniques” for helping her, including that she needs to be in a harness while on a bus and that the best way to react when she loses control is calmly and by singing.
They allege the district never trained the bus driver or the three aides regarding the care plan. In fact, they say, those individuals were never properly trained to handle students with disabilities. Instead, they believe, staff based decisions on “their irrational, uninformed and untrained instincts and beliefs that the violent outburst of a disabled child was best resolved with a greater level of violence.”
“But I’m not sure that one needs to be trained on the notion to not beat children,” Kinikini said.
Bertagnole hadn’t worked with students with disabilities before, the driver said. He’d received a lot of training with the district, he said, but not about working with kids with special needs. He also said he reached out to the girl’s mom after the first interaction and talked to his boss about what to do next time. “He couldn’t answer the question.”
Still, the lawsuit alleges the driver “violently assaulted, punched, slapped, painfully restrained, forcibly seized, verbally abused and cruelly taunted” the girl and should’ve known better.
Bertagnole, in particular, used “extreme levels of force,” they say. He broke district policies that say students should only be put in restraints “when less restrictive means are unavailable.” And, despite Bertagnole doing so, the guidebook notes that kids should never be placed in a face-down restraint. That’s also a statewide law.
All incidents of physical intervention are also supposed to be reported to the district. In these cases, neither incident with the girl or those with the 10-year-old boy were documented by the staff who witnessed it. Someone who came onto the bus at the school where it was parked later told the transportation director, who got police involved about two weeks later. That’s how the Turners say they learned of the situation.
The family believes the three aides on the bus are liable because they stood by and did nothing. The Turners add that the district showed a “callous disregard” for their daughter’s safety and wellbeing. And since the confrontations, she has suffered emotional distress and more anxiety and fear, they said. She has not been able to focus at school. The family is asking for damages to cover her medical expenses. The Kellers are asking for a similar financial award.
Both families are also suing the Utah Board of Education and the state superintendent, suggesting they have oversight of the district and “ultimate authority over public education within the state of Utah" to hold schools accountable for following disability laws.