Over the course of more than 30 minutes, a Palm Beach County school bus aide twisted, squeezed and drove his elbow into the body of an autistic 8-year-old boy, vowing to make him cry as the boy screamed in pain.
“It hurt? It’s supposed to,” the aide said at one point as the boy moaned.
“You try me, it’s gonna hurt even worse,” he said later.
School district police found the bus aide’s conduct, captured on a security camera, so egregious that they moved to charge him with aggravated child abuse, saying that he repeatedly hurt the Lantana Elementary student during a bus ride in 2015.
But the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office rejected the case, saying that the bus aide’s repeated use of physical force was not a crime.
Rather than child abuse, a prosecutor concluded, the actions of former bus aide Christopher Barker amounted to “permissible and privileged corporal punishment.”
Two years later, prosecutors’ decision to let the former bus aide go free is facing new scrutiny now that the boy’s mother has sued the school board in federal court over her son’s treatment.
‘It’s supposed to hurt’
The incident happened in February 2015 as the boy was taking a bus from Lantana Elementary to a specialized after-care program for students with disabilities.
Strapped in the back seat, the boy – diagnosed with autism and a developmental disorder – yelled, laughed and occasionally taunted or mimicked other students.
After telling him several times to be quiet, Barker began to use physical force to silence him – squeezing his neck, pushing his head down, pressing into him with the weight of his body and driving his elbow into his back, police say.
The physical punishment continued even after other students got off the bus. With the rest of the bus empty, Baker sat alongside the boy in the last aisle, demanding that the boy tell him his mother’s telephone number.
When the boy refused, the pain resumed.
“It’s supposed to hurt,” Barker said as the boy squealed. “You’re going to get this every time you get on the bus.”
While no one disputes that Barker hurt the boy, Assistant State Attorney Marci Rex argued that he was entitled to do so under state law.
Parents and people acting in a parental role – including teachers and other school employees – are allowed to commit simple battery on children, Rex argued in a June 2015 memo declining to take the case.
Prosecutors: No evidence of child abuse
A school employee supervising a child can only be charged with hurting the child, she wrote, if their actions are malicious, excessive, done for frivolous reasons or result in serious harm.
“To support a charge of child abuse, the state must prove that the defendant intentionally inflicted physical or mental injury upon a child or did an intentional act that could reasonably be expected to,” she wrote.
“Barker’s actions cannot be condoned,” she wrote. “However, the facts of this case do not support a criminal charge of child abuse.”
Her analysis of Barker’s behavior appeared to contradict the conclusions of school district police, who pointed out that Barker, now 30, told the boy repeatedly that he knew he was hurting him and later admitted he knew he was causing the boy pain.
“On the surveillance video you can see that the actions of Mr. Barker towards the student went on for quite a bit of time,” Detective Anna Sloan wrote in an affidavit making a case for his arrest. “As a result of the physical contact, [the boy] did receive three red marks on the left side of his back.”
Courts have long recognized that teachers and others who supervise children have greater leeway to use physical force.
But attorneys say the line between permissible physical force and abuse is often murky, a tension that plays out frequently in cases of parents physically disciplining their children.
Barry Maxwell, a West Palm Beach attorney who as a prosecutor specialized in child abuse cases, said he doubted whether the extra leeway given to parents and caretakers ought to apply to bus aides, particularly with regard to physical discipline since imposing punishment isn’t part of their official duties.
“Sure, they’re in charge of the welfare of the children,” he said, “but when it comes to corporal punishment I don’t think it applies.”
Elizabeth Parker, an attorney for the boy’s mother, said that the video made clear that Barker’s intent was not to instruct the boy or modify his behavior but simply to create suffering.
“It is our position that it is clear that this was intentional,” Parker said. “This wasn’t discipline. This was done in a manner to inflict pain and cause harm to this disabled little boy.”
Bus aide: ‘I did cause him pain’
In response to questions from The Palm Beach Post, a top State Attorney’s Office official said that Barker was not charged in part because there was no evidence that the boy’s injuries were serious.
“In this case, photographs showed that any physical injury to the child was slight,” Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson said, “and no evidence was presented that the child suffered significant ‘mental injury’ as required by law to file child abuse charges.”
“As prosecutors, we are obligated to follow the law, even when we may disapprove of someone’s actions,” Johnson continued.
In a lawsuit filed last month, the boy’s mother alleges that Barker’s attack inflicted “severe emotional distress.”
The mother argues that the school board is liable for failing to train Barker, alert him of the boy's disabilities or supervise him adequately.
One person who had no doubts about whether Barker made the boy suffer was Barker himself.
In an interview with police, Barker, who did not respond to The Palm Beach Post’s requests for comment, acknowledged he had hurt him.
“I am not going to lie,” he told police. “I did cause him pain.”