North Adams school officials face lawsuit after two special needs children allegedly left on school bus
NORTH ADAMS — The city is facing a lawsuit after two special needs students were allegedly left unattended on a bus last year.
While the suit alleges the students were left unattended for more than an hour, a police investigation concluded they likely were alone for about 20 minutes.
The two families who filed the suit claim their children have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following the ordeal in January 2016, and are seeking damages for what they believe was negligence on the part of city, school and bus company officials.
The lawsuit — brought by Shannon Perin and Christopher Perin Sr., and Rebecca and Joshua Luczynski Sr. — names as defendants the North Adams Public Schools, Mayor Richard Alcombright, the School Committee, Dufour Escorted Tours Inc., pre-K program coordinator Linda Hurlbut, city-hired school bus monitor Jenna Melanson and Dufour bus driver Sherry Briggs.
Filed in Berkshire Superior Court last week by the families' attorney, Jennifer Breen, the claim seeks compensation for damages but does not specify an amount.
When reached by The Eagle on Tuesday, Breen declined to comment on ongoing litigation and said "the complaint speaks for itself."
City Solicitor John DeRosa said the complaint has been referred to the city's insurer.
"We intend to defend the case," said DeRosa, who declined to comment on the specific allegations.
The Perins have a 5-year-old child with an Individual Education Plan who utilized services three times per week at the pre-K program, which he had attended since the age of 3.
The Luczynskis' child is 3 and also had an Individual Education Plan. He attended the pre-K program five times a week for various services.
On Jan. 6, 2016, the mini-bus to Johnson School was driven by Briggs, a Dufour employee; passengers included Melanson, Perin and Luczynski, who was in a car seat.
When the bus arrived at the school at 11:55 a.m., staff escorted an unruly student off of the bus, and in doing so forgot both Luczysnki and Perin and left them on board, the lawsuit alleges. All adults allegedly left the bus without checking it for any remaining students.
The driver then took the bus to a downtown North Adams restaurant for lunch, leaving it in a parking lot with the two children still on board.
"The two children ... were on the mini-bus alone for at least an hour without a driver or any adult supervision and went missing from the school during this time," the lawsuit alleges.A subsequent investigation by North Adams Police, however, estimated the timeframe to be less than half an hour.
According to the investigation, which resulted in a written report but no criminal charges, restaurant customers noticed the students in the bus and alerted Briggs, who returned them to the school.
The lawsuit alleges that at no point did any school employee notify the parents, Dufour, or police that the children were absent. The city contracts with Dufour for student transportation — in this case, a mini-bus to the Johnson School where the pre-K program is located.
Hurlbut allegedly called Perin's mother and said that he may come home after having an "extra-long bus ride for a few minutes with the driver on the bus the entire time," and allegedly made similar statements to Luczynski's mother.
But in conversation with her son at home later that night, Perin's mother learned that he had been on the bus for a long time unattended with another child and no adult supervision, Perin's parents became concerned and called North Adams Police, according to the suit.
"Other than [Perin's] initial report, the NAPD did not further interview the family and the NAPD never interviewed the Luczynskis, nor did they tell them that their 3-year-old was listed as a victim in the case," the lawsuit claims.
Perin told his mother that he was forced to eat lunch alone that day because the lunch period, which runs until 12:45 p.m., had already concluded. She inferred that her son had been on the bus for at least 55 minutes, according to a police report filed the day of the incident.
The families also allege the driver intentionally omitted facts in her description of the events to police.
According to a police report attached to the lawsuit, Briggs initially acknowledged that the students were on the bus, but said that it remained running as she stopped outside a store and spoke with an acquaintance. She estimated to a detective that it was about 15 minutes that the students were missing from the school, according to the report, which was filed that month and amended in April and June.
But Briggs' boyfriend, Tim Randall, later informed police that Briggs had "not been truthful."
He told police that Briggs had met him for lunch at Christo's on Holden Street and left the bus in the parking lot, not running. They were there for about 10 to 15 minutes, Randall said, until another diner alerted them that there were children still on the bus.
Randall and Briggs returned to the bus and "Randall stated that both boys were talkative and laughing with him," the police report states.
After an interview with the restaurant's owner, police estimated that Briggs was most likely in the restaurant for about 20 minutes.
Representatives from Dufour told police that the bus — an older model — did not have a camera or alarm system, and that although Dufour does not require that the drivers walk to the rear of the bus and place an "empty" sign at the back, drivers should check their bus before exiting it.
The lawsuit criticizes the city's response to the Perin family's complaint.
Luczynski's parents only learned that their son had been missing through the Perin family and were never notified by the city or school district, according to the lawsuit.
In March, former Superintendent James Montepare denied the families' requests to have their children home-tutored due to the trauma of being left on the bus alone.
Nine months after the incident, new Superintendent Barbara Malkas granted the Perins' request to have Briggs taken off of their son's route, but she still drives a bus in the district, according to the lawsuit.
The trauma from the incident resulted in both children displaying fear of buses, crying, heightened anxiety and night terrors. Both "regressed in developmental milestones," following the incident, according to the allegations.
The Department of Children and Families in March investigated the incident and determined Briggs' actions amounted to neglect.
A representative for Dufour did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.
Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.
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