Daniel Harris Sr. hopes the second defendant in his son’s assault case doesn’t get off as easy as the first one.
After agreeing with the prosecutor that a surveillance video shows Susan Nelson hitting 13-year-old autistic child Daniel Harris Jr. on a Baltimore County school bus, District Court Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. ruled “not guilty” after a 10-minute hearing.
“She’s doing her job trying to maintain discipline,” Russell said dismissively in court on March 11, according to transcripts acquired by the AFRO. “It wasn’t a forceful hit. Nobody was injured. She’s got her hands full.”
But police agree with Harris Sr., who said not only was his son assaulted by Nelson on Nov. 20, 2009, but attacked by Christina Brocato, a bus driver with a prior child abuse record. Her trial is scheduled for May 19.
Harris Sr. said his son was strapped into his seat next to Nelson, who was substituting for Harris Jr.’s regular aide, as Brocato drove the bus of special education students on I-695 and Perring Parkway.
“The aide gave my son her scrunchy,” Harris Sr. said. “He started playing with it because it’s made out of elastic material. He started trying to unravel it and she slapped him and that set him off. He became uncontrollable at that point.”
Lt. Jim Dewees of the Maryland State Police Golden Ring Barrack said it is difficult to determine by surveillance camera how hard Nelson hit Harris Jr., but the tape clearly captures an assault and unnecessary restraint forced upon the teen.
“ basically stands up and hits him several times,” DeWees said. “She didn’t stop; she was mad. It looked like the child to the ground. You can see them scuffling on the floor and you can see him being physically assaulted.”
At that point, Brocato then pulled the bus over. Lori Mazan, operator and safety supervisor of Durham School Services which runs the school bus company, claims that Harris Jr. got out of his harness and ran to the front of the bus, prompting Brocato to pull the bus over.
“As the driver expressed it, ‘had to be disarmed’,” she wrote.
However, DeWees said the encounter went beyond discipline and became child abuse; the tape “clearly shows” Brocato pull the bus over and immediately begins to assault Harris beyond acceptable reproach.
“She gets up and it appears as though she assists in the assault or restraining the child,” Dewees said. “It’s not like she comes and intervenes and tries to make peace with what was going on.”
Brocato has been charged with two counts of second-degree assault, adding onto her busy criminal record. On Oct. 26, 2003, she was charged with child abuse of a minor, contributing to the condition of a child, and second degree assault. She pled guilty to the 2003 assault charge and was sentenced to probation after being convicted on July 12, 2004.
Communications Specialist Ann Kinder said it is Durham School Services’ policy not to comment on pending litigation, but released the following statement regarding Brocato’s former employment with the company: “Durham School Services takes the safety of the children we transport very seriously. All of our drivers and monitors are required to pass a full background check and drug and alcohol screens before they are hired. In addition, they must complete an extensive training program that includes instruction on student management techniques.”
Harris Sr. was called to come pick his son up from school when the bus arrived there and had to drive his son to school for two months after the incident. He is now back on the bus without any problems, and former Durham School Services spokesperson Laura Osheaski confirmed that Nelson and Brocato have been “terminated.”
During her trial, Nelson told the judge she gave Harris her scrunchy because that was the only way she could keep him in his seat and doesn’t remember hitting him.
“I loved my job and I loved my kids on the bus,” she testified. “If I did hit him it was just in a response. He was hitting me down here on my leg.”
On the court transcripts, Russell admits that the tape did not show Harris Jr. hit Nelson, but said he accepted her testimony because she was under oath. Harris Sr. said his son is nonviolent and only used force after Brocato “got on top of him.”
“He was defending himself,” he said. “He doesn’t understand a strange person hitting him. She wasn’t’ supposed to do that.”
If Brocato is found not guilty, her job could be reinstated.
“I don’t want to see that woman go to jail,” Harris Sr. said. “I just want to see her a guilty plea so she can stay the heck off of these buses and not do that to another child again.”