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I-Team

I-Team: Family sues local school district and its busing company for child’s sexual abuse by driver

Bus Assault

A Coachella Valley family is seeking damages against the Palm Springs Unified School District and the busing company it contracts with to drive students to and from its campuses. The action follows a bus driver molesting a special needs student aboard a school bus.

The criminal case has already gone to court and the driver, Samuel Ortega, has been sentenced for his crimes.

The school district contracts with First Student, INC for busing services.

The abuse of an 11-year-old was documented on cameras placed aboard a First Student bus in 2019.

The girl was recorded saying, "When I grow up, I want to marry you." Ortega responded, "You're my girlfriend."

What should be a safe place wasn't as the same cameras captured the child walking around the bus and sitting on Ortega's lap.

"Did you wear shorts," Ortega said to the child in one instance. "Yeah" the child responded. "Oh darn. You have underwear on don't you," Ortega continued as his hand appeared to touch the skirt she lifts for him. Investigators testified other videos showed him "groping, tickling, pinching and grabbing'' the child. This abuse happened as two other children rode along at the back of the bus.

In another video, part of a collection of 30 days worth of recordings, Ortega holds the child's hand as he drives the bus. Ortega, 60, was arrested in January of 2019. He pleaded guilty to committing three or more lewd acts with a child under 14-years-old last March and was sentenced in September to 12-years probation and ordered to complete a sex offender treatment program.

"It's not okay for this to happen to our child," said Thomas Lister-Looker. "It's not okay for this to happen to anyone's child."

The child's parents first found out about the abuse when the child wanted money to buy her boyfriend a candy bar.

The child's father was devastated to learn of the grooming and abuse, and told the KESQ News Channel 3 I-Team he thought he and his husband had done everything possible to protect their child.

"We thought we were doing everything the right way," said Lister-Looker. "We were being proactive, including the district. We were working with them collaboratively."

The child is a special needs student with cognitive issues and confusion over who it's safe to approach. The child goes to strangers without normal precautions.

"They say they trained the staff at school, but they didn't train the bus driver," Lister-Looker said.

The family is now suing the busing company First Student, INC. and the Palm Springs Unified School District saying both failed to protect their child.

Their attorney, Case Barnett, says the district betrayed Thomas and his husband Jim by not regularly monitoring bus recordings. Also, by continuing to deny responsibility for what happened to their child.

"Nobody over there is saying, 'Hey, we could have done this better,'" said Barnett. "'You know what? We should have better communicated with the bus company.'"

There were three video and audio recorders on the bus. One over the driver's head looking at the front door, another above the windshield looking back at the bus, and a third at the back of the bus.

"The technology was there, and the equipment was there. The procedures are apparently there. But no one is spot checking or regularly checking those videos to make sure nothing bad is happening."

Another video clip recorded the driver saying, "Do you have hair right there," as he poked his finger at the child's chest.

The pandemic has thrown another curve at the family's effort to seek damages by delaying court and legal proceedings. They have secured a date for a remote trial in July and believe they can find a fair resolution.

Neither the Palm Springs Unified School District nor First Student, INC. would discuss the case with the I-Team both saying they can't comment on pending litigation.

We asked about how the child is doing now? Lister-Looker said, "You know she has her moments. We have our moments. It's a process."

The district still contracts with First Student for student busing.

The following is the district's applicable current policy for monitoring video and audio recordings aboard its buses, provided by the district.

"All Transits type buses must be equipped with an operating camera system capable of providing the following individual view;
A. A camera view of the driver's compartment, the front entrance door and immediate area outside of the entrance door.
B. A frontal camera view capturing the front half of the internal area of the bus.
C. A frontal camera view capturing the back half of the internal area of the bus.
All Conventional/Wheelchair buses serving special needs transportation must be equipped with an operating camera system capable of providing the following individual views;
A. A camera view of the driver's compartment, the front entrance door and immediate area outside of the entrance door.
B. A frontal camera view capturing the entire passenger seating area in the bus.
C. Internal area of the wheelchair ramp entrance and immediate external area of the wheelchair ramp entrance.
All Ambulatory buses and White Fleet Vans must be equipped with an operating camera system capable of providing the following individual view;
A. A frontal camera view capturing the front half of the internal area of the bus.
B. A frontal camera view capturing the back half of the internal area of the bus."

Crime / Investigative / Kids and Crime / News / News Headlines / Top Stories

Jeff Stahl

You can watch Jeff every weekday morning on News Channel 3 in the Morning and News Channel 3 at Noon. Learn more about Jeff here.

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