- Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Squeezing the boy’s neck, twisting his body and driving a fist into his back, a Palm Beach County school bus aide inflicted prolonged pain on an autistic Lantana Elementary School student in 2015, all while admonishing him to “take it like a man,” a lawsuit alleges.
The bus aide, Christopher Barker, now 30, was investigated over the incident by school district police, who moved to arrest him on a child abuse charge but, the school district said, were overruled by state prosecutors. Barker was not arrested but resigned in October 2015, days before a vote by the school board to fire him.
A school district investigation found that Barker’s “inappropriate physical interaction” with the boy carried on for more than 30 minutes as a bus carried him from Lantana Elementary school to a specialized after-care program for students with disabilities at Starlight Cove Elementary west of Lantana.
A federal suit filed last week by the boy’s mother cast blame for the incident on the school district, saying the public school system was liable for the boy’s “pain and suffering” and “severe emotional distress” for failing to train Barker, alert him of the boy’s disabilities or supervise him adequately.
On the day of the incident, Barker was assigned to a bus dedicated exclusively to transporting children with disabilities, but the lawsuit alleges that he never sat for required courses in how to interact with children with disabilities.
“Despite having been employed for over a year, Barker had never taken these classes or received training on how to deal with stressful situations and particularly dealing with children with disabilities,” the lawsuit states.
District policy also required bus aides and drivers to receive lists of every student on the bus and any disabilities they had, but the suit alleges that Barker never received a copy.
The suit also said the bus driver failed to stop Barker from continuing “his outrageous behavior” and continued to drive the bus as Barker inflicted pain on the child.
In a statement, the school district said that it moved quickly after the incident to investigate Barker and then to fire him.
“The district takes very seriously any allegations of child abuse by its employees,” the statement said. “This incident highlights why we have video on our school buses – so we can document, investigate and move to discipline or terminate employees who violate the trust of students in their care.”
A police investigation released Tuesday by the school district indicated the incident happened after the boy began screaming on the bus and, at one point, attempted to stand and remove his seat belt.
An administrator at Lantana Elementary told police that children with the boy’s disability often scream because they have trouble communicating effectively.
After the boy screamed, the suit alleges, a security video revealed that Barker sat alongside him and grabbed his neck “with such force that [the boy’s] neck and body move[d] forward” and the boy cried in pain.
As his screamed in pain, Barker increased the pressure on his neck, the suit said. He asked if it hurt and then said, “It’s supposed to.”
Barker then told the boy, “I can make it hurt, I can make it hurt worse than this,” according to the suit. When the boy screamed again, he said, “It hurts? It hurts now?”
Several minutes later, Barker returned to the seat, grabbed him by the back of his neck and squeezed, causing him to “bend his head forward and strike the seat in front of him.”
When the boy refused to reveal his mother’s phone number, Barker pushed against him with his entire body’s weight, saying, “Who do you think is stronger?”
When the boy tried to push him away, he said “I am going to make it hurt this time if you don’t stop,” the lawsuit alleges.
He added: “I’m going to make you cry this time.”
He then drove his elbow into the boy’s back, causing the boy to yell, “Oh God this hurts.”
Squeezing his side, he allegedly told the boy: “You try me, it’s gonna hurt even worse, until we get there.”
Then: “Take it like a man. But you’re not a man, you’re a boy.”
After eventually releasing the boy, Barker warned, “You’re going to get this every time you get on the bus. Every time you misbehave, that’s what you’re going to get.”
Later, the suit alleges, red marks were visible on the boy’s neck. Questioned by police, Baker said: “I am not going to lie, I did cause him pain.”
A call to Barker’s personal phone was not returned. A lawyer for the boy’s mother said she was not available to comment Tuesday.