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THE LONGEST RIDE: Family claims SC school district acted to ‘cover up’ state’s warnings in 2018 school bus attack on autistic child

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CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — The sound of the revving diesel engine was once the music of Autumn Angle’s mornings. The excitement of shoving her arms through her bookbag straps and hopping on the bus was easy to see.

QCN INVESTIGATES: THE LONGEST RIDE

For Autumn, although she was just four years old on Nov. 5, 2018, riding the bus to school was her first “big girl” moment.

“She did love the bus. She did think she was – like I said – her level of fear. She didn’t have fear, she was strong. And she did, she loved it,” Jessica Condon told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr in an interview in September.

“She would see that bus and oh, God, she would just smile. And she would be so happy and sometimes she would sing on her way.”

Autumn Angle’s mother, Jessica Condon, enrolled her daughter into an early education program for nonverbal children with autism. The program was located at the Ruby Elementary School, which is nearly 30 miles from the Condon home in Cheraw. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Autumn was nonverbal and diagnosed with autism long before Condon decided to put her on the school bus. The family searched for a special needs program for Autumn to help her get a jump start on her education. Since she was also non-verbal at the time, Condon was especially picky about where she placed her daughter.

Condon found a program within the Chesterfield County School District, but it was located at the Ruby Elementary School – a 45-minute ride from her home on the eastern end of the county.

“Because of her severity, she was assigned to Ruby, which is a town, kind of two towns over from us, and about a 45-minute ride to and from school. I was scared because she was four. I was told that, you know, the ride would harbor independence, that it would – all the students on the bus were from her classroom. And it issued more safety for them because it was the same students from that classroom, getting on the bus at their homes, exiting the bus straight into their teachers’ arms, and assistants’ arms, and then traveling straight from the school bus, straight to their class,” Condon said.

But, Condon said she noted a concern from the first bus ride: aside from the driver, there was no other adult on the school bus. Her decades of working as a registered nurse kicked in.

“I was worried about the behaviors, but I was also worried about just trying to – what, if they had candy, what if they choked? What if one had a seizure? You know, thinking like a nurse. What if this happened and the bus driver was driving would he see it, would they get the care they needed fast enough?”

Photographs included in the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office case file show bruises from bite marks along Autumn Angle’s left leg. The bruises and bites were up and down her left side. (Source: CCSO)

Condon asked the district’s bus drivers about the district’s attendant policy.

“What do I do? And they told me the numbers to call at the district, which one was they told me a bus supervisor Robin Barrett,” Condon said. Condon called Barrett and left messages.

“I started calling her. I started calling Karen Rogers, who was over the special needs program. “I left message after message after message. I never got to speak to an actual person,” Condon told QCN. She then asked her daughter’s teacher what to do.

The teacher suggested she keep pressing.

“So, I continued on. I figured if I aggravated somebody, maybe that would get me somewhere eventually. When that didn’t work, I bypassed the district altogether and reached out to the school board,” Condon said.

Along with the attendants, Condon was also complaining about the condition of the bus she saw pick her daughter up each morning, saying that bus didn’t have heat and air. Condon turned to Chesterfield County School Board Chairman Chad Vick for help.

Condon sent Vick a Facebook message on Oct. 25, 2018 – 11 days before her daughter would be attacked nearly 100 times on the bus – asking for Vick’s help to convince the district to replace her daughter’s bus with a newer bus the district told her they used for driver training.

“Is there anything you can do to help? Anything I can do to help? There is an updated bus that is being used for training bus drivers that is a special needs bus. We used it today for our field trip. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the kids could use that bus? It just sits there until training time. That would be perfect!” Condon wrote in the Facebook message.

Vick responded, telling Condon he’d “make a contact with the appropriate people” to see if we can make that happen. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I will check on it right now,” the Facebook message shows.

Condon said Vick never followed up with her on the request.

We made multiple attempts to contact Vick – by phone, email, and Facebook messenger – to ask him about Condon’s messages and the lawsuit Condon filed, but Vick never responded. Barr messaged Vick’s Facebook account on Nov. 4, 2022, seeking an interview.  

Vick did not respond.

After Barr messaged the chairman again on Nov. 11, Vick didn’t respond and instead blocked Barr from his Facebook account.

“How would you characterize that response,” Barr asked Condon, “He got right back to me, but it was just a general response. He could tell I was a worried mom and he just pretty much; I’ll look into it. But I never heard anything back and nothing ever changed. But it wasn’t much longer after that, that my daughter was injured.”

On Nov. 5, 2018, Jessica Condon and Lee Angle walked Autumn to the bus stop for her pre-dawn pick-up. The onboard bus camera shows driver Ronnie Sires pick Autumn up and place her into a restraint seat and buckled her straps. The bus recordings showed two views: one from above the driver, the other of the inside of the bus from behind the driver’s seat.

At 23 minutes into the morning bus ride recording, Sires stops the bus, and a 9-year-old boy, identified as “J.M.” boards. The bus video shows within 20 seconds of taking his seat on the bus, J.M. crosses the aisle and punches Autumn in the face.

The video recording captured Autumn crying out with each attack, attacks the bus driver later told investigators he didn’t see, although the recording shows Sires turn around during one of the attacks telling J.M. to “Leave her alone.”

Sires stopped the bus at a school to let a wheelchair-bound student off the bus. Sires walked off the bus to deal with the wheelchair lift, leaving the children on the bus without adult supervision. Autumn continued crying out.

“Stop crying, baby. Stop crying. Stop crying. This ain’t hurting you or nothing, is it,” Sires said as he walked back on the bus and stopped by Autumn’s seat to check her harness. Sires eventually sat in the seat beside Autumn and held her hand trying to console her.

The video shows Autumn looking directly at Sires but couldn’t tell him what happened.

The attacks continued through the next half-hour of the ride to school. Condon’s legal team counted 11 attacks on the morning ride and another 85 attacks on the ride home that day.

This still frame from the Chesterfield County School bus recording shows bus driver trying to console Autumn Angle after another student attacked her multiple times on the ride to school that morning. Angle is nonverbal and could not tell Sires what happened. (Source: CCSD)

“She was crying quite a bit this morning; I don’t know what was going on with her,” Sires told an aide at Ruby Elementary School that morning and got both J.M. and Autumn off the bus. “She do that sometimes, most of the time it be play crying,” the aide told Sires before walking escorting the children off the bus.

Autumn spent the day at school, but her teacher later testified in a deposition that they noticed Autumn wasn’t acting normally that day, but she could not tell her teachers what happened. When Autumn saw the bus that afternoon, her teacher suspected the bus had something to do with it.

“When she saw the bus, she grabbed my hand and when she grabbed my hand, I could feel her shaking,” Autumn’s teacher Stephanie Huggins testified in a deposition in the civil rights lawsuit Autumn’s family later filed against the district.

“She wasn’t verbally moaning; she had a finger in her mouth, but I could feel her shaking,” Huggins said. Huggins handed Autumn off to the aide, identified as Linda McCormick, to walk both Autumn and J.M. to the bus, “I said something’s not right because I can feel her shaking. And Linda agreed with me and J.M. went to reach for AA (Autumn) and Mrs. McCormick said, ‘No, I have her today.’ And they left. And when Linda came back in the room, Mrs. McCormick said, ‘I asked Mr. Siers if anything happened on the bus this morning. And her response to me in the classroom was, ‘He said no.’”

Huggins said J.M. would sometimes hold Autumn’s hand as they both walked to the bus with an adult at the end of the school day.

THE RIDE HOME

The bus recording from the afternoon ride shows Autumn stopping at the bottom step of the bus and beginning to cry out, “Come on. Step up, it’s okay,” McCormick is recorded on video telling Autumn outside the bus door as Sires is working to strap a child into the front seat of the bus.

Autumn walks onto the bus and appears to see J.M. sitting in the first seat behind the driver’s seat, and shouts “It’s him.” That translation came from Autumn’s family and legal team and our review of the recording appears to show Autumn speaking those two words.

A teacher’s aide walked Autumn Angle to the school bus for the ride home on Nov. 5, 2018. The video shows Angle stop at the top of the steps and cry out when she appeared to notice the student who’d attacked her on the morning ride. Angle’s attorneys counted 85 individual attacks on her during this afternoon ride home. (Source: CCSD)

She turned back toward McCormick before reaching for Sires’ leg.

“Was she okay today? Did she cry any today?” Sires asked McCormick. “Uh huh,” McCormick replied as she watched Autumn’s reactions as she headed down the aisle with Sires toward her seat. “Did anything happen unusual this morning,” McCormick asked Sires. “(inaudible) like she always do, all of a sudden, she just started crying. I don’t know, ain’t nothing unusual happened, just started crying,” Sires said as he picked Autumn up and strapped her into the seat.

McCormick walks off the bus and Sires begins the afternoon bus route with Autumn looking out the bus window the entire ride – even as she was attacked 86 more times.

“When I look back, and I think about it, it’s almost like a prisoner of war that’s been tied down to a seat and tortured. My daughter was in a seat and a harness that she didn’t understand. She can maybe move about two inches, her back off the seat, maybe two inches, and she was tied down and had to take everything that child – 96 attacks that afternoon,” Condon said.

In the past four years, Condon said she still hasn’t been able to watch it all.

“Every bite she felt, and she couldn’t, she couldn’t pull away from it. Every pinch, every hit, every slap, she felt it all and there was no getting away from it. And it does; it reminds me of like, prisoner of war, just being tortured to get some information from them, but this is my daughter on a school bus.”

“All she could do was scream, and she was screaming, I mean, blood-curdling screams – that’s why I can’t watch it,” Condon said.

This still frame from the bus video recording from the Nov. 8, 2018 afternoon bus ride shows a student identified as J.M. slamming Autumn Angle’s head into the back of the bus seat, along with multiple punches to the girl’s face. (Source: CCSD)

J.M. didn’t start the afternoon ride attacking Autumn. The bus recording shows him targeting another nonverbal autistic child, identified as N.H.W, strapped into the seat directly in front of Autumn.

J.M. rips that child’s shoes off and throws them to the back of the bus.

One of the shoes hit Autumn in the face as J.M. threw it. Sires testified in an August 2020 deposition that he didn’t see any of the attacks. The bus recording shows the show problem was something Sires at least experienced before, “What they need to do is take his shoes off and put them up. He going to pull them off anyway. Put them up here until he gets home. That way he don’t take them off and throw them around,” Sires told J.M. in the bus recording that day.

“I don’t know why he do that. He threw it at her, (inaudible) threw it at her,” J.M. told Sires.

The recording shows J.M. attack N.H.W. several more times, punching, kicking, and grabbing him. J.M. also committed some of the more brutal, sustained attacks on Autumn on the afternoon bus ride.

The video shows those attacks included more punches to Autumn’s face and bites along the left side of her body.

The attacks on Autumn continued until seconds before Sires reached her bus stop.

The bus recording shows Autumn’s father, Lee Angle, running to the bus as his daughter’s cries had become screams as Sires held the 4-year-old in his arms. Here’s the exchange between Sires and Angle at the bus door.

ANGLE: “What’s wrong?

SIRES: “It’s been a bad day for her.”

ANGLE: “Really? Has she been like this the whole time?”

SIRES: “The whole time, this morning time she got on the bus.”

ANGLE: “Really?” (Autumn continues crying as her father holds her outside the bus door)

SIRES: “(unintelligible) as soon as I set her down, she started crying. I had no idea what could be going on.”

ANGLE: “Maybe she’s just off today. She doesn’t ever do this.”

SIRES: “I don’t understand, this is the first time I ever seen it.”

ANGLE: “She’s probably just off, it’s hard to tell because she can’t really talk.”

SIRES: “Maybe she’ll be okay. I hope she’ll be fine, that’s why I tried to get her home as soon as I could.”

ANGLE: “Yeah, it’s okay, it’s okay…she may be sick or something.”

Angle took his daughter inside the house and both parents undressed her to change her diaper. That’s when the evidence of what happened during those two Nov. 5, 2018 bus rides showed up.

BUS DRIVER CHARGED

Jessica Condon and Lee Angle could already see the dozens of bruised and bite marks starting to form along the left side of Autumn Angle’s body. They had no idea what happened to her and rushed her to the hospital to find out how severe her injuries were.

“She was just covered – her entire left side was covered in bite marks and I mean bite marks to the point where you could count almost every tooth in the other child’s mouth, bite marks;  huge bruises already forming just holes that we later found out came from pinching. But it would be small, you know, double holes all over her side,” Condon said.

“We became scared because we didn’t know, okay, had she had injuries to her head? Had she been hit in the head? And I just took her to the ER just to have them evaluate her to make sure that there wasn’t some kind of injury to her head that we may be needed have checked further,” Condon told QCN.

Neither parent had any idea what happened. Condon’s first call was to Autumn’s teacher, but Huggins said nothing happened in her class that day. Condon then sent Huggins pictures of Autum’s injuries, which set off what Condon describes as “a whirlwind” within the district that involved the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff’s office opened an investigation that day and assigned Investigator Angela Tubbs to figure out what happened and whether a crime was committed. Tubbs called Ronnie Sires to the sheriff’s office for an interview. Sires later testified he told the investigator nothing happened on the bus.

This document was included in the case file on Chesterfield County school bus driver Ronnie Sires. It shows sheriff’s investigator Angela Tubbs taking a photograph from the driver’s seat, capturing the view Sires had of the back of his bus on the day of the attacks. (Source: CCSO)

“Because I didn’t think nothing happened, I didn’t know that anything happened,” Sires said in a deposition two years later. “I mean, all I knew that all I did was pick the kids up, took them home and that during that day, AA (Autumn Angle) was very unusual with her. She was crying a lot, so I was a little puzzled, but far as anything happening, I didn’t know what happened. All I know that AA (Autumn Angle) was crying on that particular day.”

By this time, the district had reviewed the bus camera recordings from the morning and afternoon rides. District officials saw what caused the injuries to Autumn, and who caused them. CCSD Superintendent Dr. Harrison Goodwin emailed the school board that night, telling the board about “a student matter.”

“It appears that Ruby Elementary School student with autism was bitten multiple times by another student while on the bus on the way home today,” and the district was working to “recover the video” from the school bus. “There are many unanswered questions at this point, but we will continue to follow up to seek answers,” Goodwin wrote in the email.

A second email provided to Condon’s legal team in discovery in the lawsuit shows Goodwin updated the board on Nov. 6, 2018 – 22 hours after the attacks. “There are concerns related to appropriate supervision by the bus driver and based on those concerns and [sic] we have turned that information over to the sheriff’s department,” Goodwin wrote.

“The bus driver will not be driving the bus while all investigations are conducted,” Goodwin told the school board. None of the emails provided to QCN show Goodwin told the board any other details about what happened on the bus ride.

On Nov. 9, 2018, Tubbs went to a Chesterfield County magistrate to swear a warrant out against Sires, charging him with one count of unlawful neglect of a child. Sires was freed on a $5,000 no cash bond. The Chesterfield County grand jury indicted Sires on Jan. 9, 2019.

Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office charged Ronnie Sires with unlawful neglect of a child in the days following the Nov. 5, 2018 school bus attack of Autumn Angle. Sires’ criminal case remains pending more than four years after the attacks. (Source: CCSO)

Sires charge remained pending from November 2018 until August 18, 2022 when Fourth Circuit Deputy Solicitor Kernard Redmond dismissed the charge, writing on the indictment “N/P, prosecutorial discretion.” Redmond’s dismissal of the charge happened nearly four years after the bus attacks and just 18 days before Condon reached a $2.2 million settlement with the school district, Goodwin, Sires, and the SC Department of Education.

We discovered the dismissal on Sept. 6, the day we interviewed Jessica Condon for this report. Condon and her attorney, Patrick McLaughlin, did not know the solicitor’s office dismissed the charge. The solicitor’s office is required under the S.C. Constitution to notify crime victims of developments in a criminal case.

McLaughlin sent the solicitor’s office a letter informing the prosecutor of the violation of the state’s crime victim’s act and the solicitor’s office reinstated the charge the next day. The charge is still pending today.

Sires did not answer calls to a phone number published under his name and he did not respond to a letter QCN’s Jody Barr sent to his home requesting an interview on Nov. 14.

CCSD TRIED TO ‘COVER UP’ BUS VIDEO, ATTACKS

In the weeks following the attacks, Jessica Condon said she continued pressing for adult attendants on Chesterfield County school buses. Condon has already taken Autumn off the bus and resorted to driving her to Ruby Elementary, a 52-mile one-way round trip.

This was a 104-mile daily trip for Condon and her daughter. The district had to pay Condon mileage after the attacks.

By February 2019, three months after the attacks, Condon said she learned the district still had not put attendants on its special needs buses. She said she waited patiently those three months, hoping the district “would make this right.”

At the 90-day mark, Condon said she realized the district wasn’t going to make any changes.

Ruby Elementary School is located nearly 30 miles from Jessica Condon’s home. Following the Nov. 5, 2018 attacks, Condon never put her daughter on a Chesterfield County school bus again and drove the 52-mile round trip to and from Ruby twice a day. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Her solution: release the bus video of her daughter’s attacks. The videos were released to media outlets in Myrtle Beach and Charlotte and reporters in both areas reported on the attacks. But, even after the videos went public, the CCSD still did not put attendants on its special needs buses.

The publicized video and the news of Sires’ arrest also made its way to the South Carolina Department of Education in February 2019.

Before then, the SCDOE had no idea the bus attack happened or that one of the bus drivers the SCDOE awarded a certification to had been arrested.

The SCDOE called Sires to Columbia for a hearing in April 2019. The state permanently revoked his bus driving certification during that hearing.

“Had we not ever released it to the media, no report would have been filed with the state and he would still have his bus license and be riding the bus. So, I mean, it kind of feels a lot like a cover-up to me,” Condon told Barr in the September interview.

Jessica Condon told QCN she believes had she never released the video to reporters in February 2019, the Chesterfield County School District might have never told the S.C. Department of Education about the school bus attacks or that a driver the SCDOE certifies was arrested. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

“This was next level. And no, nothing was reported. Nothing at all. It was actually forgotten, per them. They just forgot to file the report. But I can’t forget it and how can they easily forget it,” Condon asked during the interview with QCN. “Do you think they really forgot it,” Barr asked, “No, I don’t think they forgot it at all,” Condon replied.

McLaughlin filed the lawsuit in March 2019, accusing CCSD, Sires, and Goodwin of civil rights violations and for failing to protect Autumn on the bus that day. The lawsuit accused the S.C. Department of Education of failing to protect Autumn from harm and failing to “properly supervise/train” bus drivers the department certifies and failing to “provide adequate safety measures that would have protected Autumn Angle on that bus ride.

The lawsuit lingered in the state civil court, with multiple motions, orders, and various other entries over the next three and a half years. In that time, McLaughlin combed through years of school district records, investigating how the attacks on Autumn and N.H.W. happened and what the CCSD did in the days, weeks, and months following the attacks.



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