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An infuriated Somers mom is claiming her autistic son was verbally threatened by a bus monitor after he vomited during a 40-minute ride home but the school district is now pushing back aggressively against some of the related charges.
The mother, Sarah Kooluris, said her son was left in his own filth on the bus ride.
Kooluris, a vocal critic of the school district, filed a formal child abuse complaint against Superintendent of Schools Dr. Raymond Blanch as a result of the Feb. 27 incident.
She’s waging a campaign to prevent the bus monitor from working with other students.
But on Monday night, Blanch strongly countered Kooluris on some of her charges in the now highly-publicized case, saying in an unsolicited follow-up statement provided to The Examiner that “numerous allegations that have been made in public are not accurate, including claims that a student’s life was threatened and claims that the district did not respond promptly and appropriately.”
“We further note that it is our understanding that that a report was made to the State Police, who investigated the matter and closed the case,” Blanch said in the statement, which was provided to The Examiner over email Monday night by district communications specialist Amanda Bergen.
A district investigation had concluded that the bus monitor “violated the Dignity for All Students Act.”
The Dignity for All Students Act was established to protect students from harassment, bullying and discrimination. It was approved by the state legislature in 2010 and went into effective on July 1, 2012. The act mandates that each account must be documented by the school district.
“This whole thing has been a nightmare,” Kooluris said. “The fact that they didn’t get rid of this monitor, and they put her on a bus with other kids, is astonishing. The way this was handled is shocking. The amount of spinning and lies is staggering.”
Kooluris’ son is a freshman at Somers High School. Severely autistic and non-verbal, he suffers from global apraxia, an intellectual disability, and also has physical limitations that prohibit him from performing such tasks as removing a seatbelt or a jacket while wearing a seatbelt.
“Just because he can’t speak doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand,” his mother explained. “He understands a lot. He was terrified and he is still suffering from this.”
According to Kooluris, at about 2:45 p.m. on Feb. 27, her son arrived home on a bus wearing a jacket covered in vomit after having been buckled into a seat smeared with vomit. She said the monitor, who The Examiner has elected not to identify because she could not be reached for comment, informed her home aide that her son vomited shortly after boarding the bus at about 2 p.m. after sticking his fingers down his throat.
A report of the incident from Somers High School Assistant Principal Karime Flores, who is also the Dignity for All Students Act coordinator, stated a video on the bus showed the monitor had grabbed paper towels to clean the area.
In addition, an investigation revealed the monitor saying, “I could kill him” and telling the bus driver, Brian Linkletter (who also serves as police chief of the part-time Somers Police Department), he should call the incident into bus dispatch because “he keeps doing it and I’m not gonna’ clean it up.”
Flores stated the monitor is also heard on video repeatedly telling the student not to put his hand down his throat and complaining about him to Linkletter in a “very loud and demeaning tone. It was also determined that “appropriate protocol” was not followed.
“The sum and substance of this investigation has indicated that (the monitor) has violated the Dignity for All Students Act,” Flores’ report stated.
The monitor was reassigned to another bus following a more than one-week investigation. During that inquiry, the bus monitor was “removed from all responsibilities,” according to Bergen. Flores noted the matter was referred to the Human Resources Department for “personnel-related action.”
However, Kooluris contended that while Flores’ report indicated the monitor uttered “I could kill him,” the video shared with her and her husband had that portion edited out.
“Deliberate omission of the facts in this case is problematic, to say the least,” she said.
“If we didn’t request to see the video, we wouldn’t have known what happened,” Kooluris continued. “We saw her yelling at him, grabbing at him. There’s a difference between being an a–hole and being aggressive. They have not been forthcoming.”
But Bergen disputed that account last week, insisting Kooluris and her husband have a copy of the full video of the incident, which she maintained was not edited.
In fact, Bergen followed up with The Examiner unprompted on Monday night, to again address the video issue and challenge Kooluris’s claims.
“The bus video depicting the entire incident was reviewed by the family in person with members of district leadership, a copy of which was also provided to the family,” the official school district statement from Bergen stated late Monday.
Linkletter did not return a phone message left with a secretary at the Somers Police Department.
On Mar. 1, Kooluris said she received an e-mail from Flores stating that the monitor “has been in this position and serving students with special needs for over 10 years and doesn’t have a history of complaints.”
“I stated, quite frankly, I don’t care if this woman has never had a complaint before because she has one now,” Kooluris said. “My son’s physical, mental and emotional condition were placed in imminent danger of impairment due to (the monitor) threatening to kill my child and the restraint of him for 40 minutes while wearing a vomit-filled jacket.”
Since the incident, Kooluris said her son has suffered severe regression, exhibiting behaviors he hasn’t shown in years, such as biting his wrists and having bathroom accidents.
“He was doing amazingly well,” she said. “This one woman has completely set him back for years. She broke his trust.”
On Apr. 18, Kooluris tried to tell her story to the Somers Board of Education during the public comment portion of its meeting, but the microphone was turned off and the board walked out to take a recess. Kooluris was told she was violating a board policy of using a student’s name and identifying a specific situation.
In an Apr. 19 letter to Somers families, Blanch explained that rules for public comment were violated by naming the student. The board recessed briefly into executive session to discuss the matter.
“The speaker was reminded of the rules for public comment and asked multiple times to refrain from doing so,” Blanch stated in an Apr. 19 letter to Somers families. “When the speaker continued to identify the student and the specific situation, the board followed its policy by calling for a brief recess of the meeting.”
“The board was already aware of the student issue that was being raised during public comment,” Blanch also said. “An investigation of the specific situation was completed and the district’s school leaders were involved in the response. The board maintains that its adherence policy at last night’s meeting in no way diminishes the empathy and concern we exercise when taking action to support our students.”
Kooluris, who noted police were called to the meeting but remained in the hallway, said she went to the meeting with a purpose.
“I have had no help from the district. My son is suffering, and they have tried to bury this,” she said. “Additionally, this woman is now working with other children and their parents have a right to know what she is capable of. I worry about other kids.”
In his letter, Blanch stated that the district was in communication with the parents in a prompt and timely manner and that the student received attention and support.
“The goal was to ensure that the parents and the student received the requisite attention and support in response to the concerns raised,” Blanch stated.
“This situation was given full attention by the administration,” the superintendent also wrote. “At the conclusion of the investigation, the board and the district acted in accordance with district policies, the law, and the findings of the investigation.”
As for Kooluris’ formal complaint alleging Blanch violated the district’s Child Abuse in the Educational Setting Policy, board President Lindsay Portnoy stated in a Mar. 29 e-mail to Kooluris that the incident “did not rise to the level of child abuse in the educational setting.”
“That said, we will address your concerns with Dr. Blanch and discuss reporting protocols and procedures to ensure that the best interests of the district’s students are being served,” Portnoy stated.
Kooluris said she and her husband were considering litigation since they have incurred out-of-pocket expenses trying to help their son cope with what he experienced.
“The roadblock we keep running into is people don’t know how to work with a student who is non-verbal,” she said. “Any autism specialist doesn’t take insurance.”
Kooluris has also been public in the past on social media with her critiques of the district. She’s questioned some local diversity initiatives and COVID-19 masking policy, among other concerns about the Somers School District leadership.
Last October, Kooluris noted on social media how a group of concerned parents and residents in Somers had drafted a petition demanding the district create an independent committee to bring more accountability to the superintendent and Board of Education.
Rick has more than 40 years’ experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, running the gamut from politics and crime to sports and human interest. He has been an editor at Examiner Media since 2012. Read more from Rick’s editor-author bio here. Read Rick’s work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/pezzullo_rick-writer/