Glenwood school bus accident leads to firing and civil rights complaint
The scalp wound autistic teenager James Starbuck suffered when his wheelchair tipped over on a school bus in June has healed, but the fallout is far from over.
Bus driver Maria Flynn, 58, was fired several weeks later and last month submitted a letter demanding $25,000 from Roaring Fork School District.
James Starbuck’s parents, Katie and Matthew Starbuck, are angry with the school district’s response and have filed complaints against the district with the U.S. Departments of Justice and Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
School district officials say they’re unable to comment on the situation because of privacy protections for staff and students, leaving Flynn’s letter and a Glenwood Springs Police report as the sole public accounts of the incident.
In her letter, addressed to James’ parents, Katie and Matthew Starbuck, and copied to Superintendent Diana Sirko, several members of the board of education and the Post Independent, Flynn describes her frustrations with the district throughout the 2013-2014 school year. She acknowledges that she was involved in several minor incidents, including striking an illegally parked car and a couple of scrapes with fences, but says she received an excellent annual review in April — though she said that was not in writing.
When she agreed to drive the extended school year (ESY) route for special needs kids, she asked the head mechanic for wheelchair training and arrived early for that purpose on June 24, her first day on the route. The training was interrupted, her letter asserts, and she left the bus barn without a demonstration.
James Starbuck wasn’t on the bus in the morning, but on the afternoon run, a sharp right turn off of Polo Drive caused his wheelchair to fall backward, and James hit his head on the floor. Flynn called 911, then the district, and attempted to stop the bleeding with paper towels.
An ambulance was soon on the scene. A Glenwood Springs police officer took a report, but because the bus itself was not in an accident, no citations were issued.
“There’s absolutely nothing a police officer can do for any injury inside a school bus,” Matthew Starbuck explained.
“If there’s a law mandating that you have to transport disabled kids, there should probably be a law saying that you need to do it safely,” Katie added.
Flynn admits that James’ wheelchair was not properly secured but contends that she wasn’t adequately trained before the incident.
“This sum is demanded NOT so that I may profit from the injury to a wheelchair-bound child, but to put the district on notice that the behavior of the RFSD Transportation Department, RE-1, was an abomination,” Flynn asserts in the letter. “The amount I am demanding is a mere pittance against a wrongful termination award, punitively speaking.”
Matthew Starbuck was out of town when the incident occurred, but Katie met her son at the hospital. Aside from the laceration, which took four staples to close, James didn’t appear to have any major injuries. As more details began to emerge, however, his parents’ relief turned into questions.
“James was so insistent. ‘I was in the center, not on the left,’ he kept saying, over and over,” Katie recalled. “I came to realize he was oriented not just a little bit wrong, but completely wrong.”
In talking to James, his parents also came to suspect that he had suffered injury or discomfort on a school bus on three previous occasions, with different drivers. He had hit his head in March 2013 because his restraints were too loose, and recalled unpleasant incidents hitting a speed bump too fast in May and September of the same year.
On July 14, the Starbucks submitted an angry letter to the board of education. A few days later, they met with district administration and were upset that the driver wasn’t included in the meeting.
On the morning of July 18, the school district fired Maria Flynn.
In her letter, Flynn contends that the form she was given didn’t include a reason for termination. It was ultimately filled out as “prior bus incidents.”
Flynn concludes her letter to the Starbucks, “I will continue to assist both of you in your own pursuit of justice for James and other special needs children.”
The Starbucks told the PI they have become increasingly frustrated in their attempts for accountability.
“We want them to admit that they did not train this woman,” Katie Starbuck said. “If the damages would even be enough to pay for the lawyer, we would sue just to make a point, but the damages would be zero because school paid for his very slight medical bills.”
With little hope of a successful discrimination lawsuit and unsuccessful attempts to involve the Colorado Department of Education, the federal complaints are the final option for the Starbucks, local business operators who own Deja Brew coffee shop.
“This is really a societal issue of how little rights the disabled have in 2014,” Matthew said. “If the feds come back and say there’s nothing we can do, I think we have a national emergency on our hands. This could happen to any child at any school district in the country, and there’s really nothing anyone can do to prevent it.”
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