In a surveillance video dated Feb. 24, 2015, for more than 40 minutes, Palm Beach County (Fla.) School District Bus Aide Christopher Barker can be seen on camera, pinching, grabbing, elbowing, and threatening a student.
“You’re not supposed to hurt children. He didn’t just physically abuse him, he mentally abused him,” says RK’s mom. She asked we call her MK for privacy reasons. “The video will never stop playing in my head or listening to him scream or the dreams and the nightmares he had afterward about the bad man coming to get him. It's disgusting.”
Barker can be heard on the video telling RK to "take it like a man," and promising he'd continue to hurt him. RK is an 8-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. The child was on his way to an after-school program, for children with special needs, on a bus full of other ESE students.
“He pinches him, he grabs him with such force he pushes his entire body against this little 8-year-old and bruises him, puts his elbow into the back of him, injures him beyond belief,” says MK’s lawyer Elizabeth Parker. “You hear him screaming out and crying in pain and the school bus aide is joyful that he’s inflicting this pain on him. And says, 'does it hurt? Good, it’s supposed to.' Just absolutely torments him physically and then threatens him and says, 'I’m going to continue to do this every single time you get on the bus.'”
It was only the second time Barker had been on RK’s bus.
“He was trying to intimidate an 8-year-old,” says MK. “That man was on top of him, his whole body weight, in any way that he could, and it wasn’t just once or twice, it was on and off, constant for like an hour.”
On the video, viewers can hear Barker tell RK to stop yelling, then pinches the back of his neck when he still does. Barker can be heard saying, “You going to keep doing it? Are you going to keep doing it? I can make that hurt, I can make it hurt worse than what is hurting right now.”
“It can’t be anything but intentional, beating abuse and verbal abuse of this child is just horrific,” says attorney Joseph Fields, who is also on the case.
School District Police investigated. In an interview with them, Barker admitted to handling the 8-year-old “aggressively.”
When asked by police if Barker “caused him some pain,” Barker replied, “Well, yeah, I'm not gonna lie, yes I did. You could say that I really got upset of how he was acting on the bus and I couldn't get him calm.”
The lawsuit alleges Barker had never been trained in courses for how to interact with children with disabilities going through crisis. He had been working for the district since 2012.
“The Investigating officer confirmed that this man had been dealing with students or this thing had been dealing with students for months and months and months but had never taken the two mandatory classes that they give to all dealing with children,” said Fields.
The district told Palm Beach-based WPTV, school bus aides and drivers don't need to train in Personal Crisis Management.
District policy also required bus aides and drivers to receive lists of every student on the bus and any disabilities they had. MK alleges in her lawsuit, that they never did.
She also points out, that the bus driver did nothing to stop the abuse.
“When something like that happens, your false sense of security is gone. And to trust adults that you're supposed to be able to trust is gone,” says MK.
Barker is heard on the video, telling RK “I'm gonna make you cry this time,” while RK screams in pain.
After MK reported the abuse, the school district, in a statement shared with WPTV, says they investigated Barker right away.
Records show school district police found “probable cause to charge Barker with child abuse.”
The State Attorney’s Office never did charge Barker though. Part of their reasoning involved a legal theory called “in loco parentis.” Which, according to lawyer Elizabeth Parker, “basically allows a teacher to stand in the shoes of a parent to institute discipline on a child.”
Riding on that theory, prosecutors explained in a “no file” memo, in part, that “Although Barker's actions cannot be condoned ... this action is a simple battery, which is privileged under current Florida law." The State Attorney’s Office declined an interview for this story, saying the memo “speaks for itself.
MK says Barker was not acting like any parent she knows. “I don't do that to my son. I don't know what parent would discipline their child in that way,” said MK.
Barker quit the district, shortly before the school board was set to vote to fire him. This means it won’t go on his record.
It is a lesson MK said she still doesn’t know how to explain to her son.
“Not a day in jail. Not anything, nothing to attach this man, he’s an abuser,” says MK. “All I did was send him to school, I sent him to school.”
Barker told WPTV over the phone, that he did not have any comment at this time, but that the incident was a long time ago.
The school district sent this statement when asked for comment.
While the School District cannot comment on pending litigation, details of Mr. Barker’s case became public in 2015, when the case was scheduled to go to the School Board to terminate Mr. Barker’s employment with the District.
The recommendation for termination came after two separate investigations of the incident involving Mr. Barker. The Office of Professional Standards investigation found serious violations of District policy, while the School Police investigation was forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office for consideration of criminal charges against Mr. Barker. Mr. Barker resigned before the District could terminate his employment.
The District takes very seriously any allegations of child abuse by its employees. 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.
When it comes to training, the district says:
Professional development is provided to bus drivers and bus aides annually. This training focuses on verbal prevention and de-escalation strategies and puts an emphasis on building positive relationships in order to maintain a safe bus environment.
The School District does not support the use of physical restraint procedures on the bus. In accordance with School Board policy, physical restraint is utilized when behaviors meet the criteria and as a last resort after all other positive behavior supports and interventions are exhausted. Due to the physical setting of the bus with close quarters and instability, it makes it difficult to implement procedures safely.
Here is a copy of the State Attorney's memo, explaining why no charges were filed.