A special needs Alexandria City Public Schools student came home from school last October and began hitting himself repeatedly in front of his mother, apparently communicating to her that he had been abused on the school bus, according to an Alexandria prosecutor.
Suspicious, the mother complained to the ACPS Department of Transportation. Six days later, Shawnee Keels, a 51-year-old school bus monitor, was fired from her post, according to Alexandria schools Superintendent Morton Sherman.
After the initial complaint, Alexandria Police became involved and Wednesday Keels pled guilty to assaulting the student multiple times. She was sentenced to a year in prison that will only be served if she violates probation, according to Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Shelby Hadfield.
The incident is one of several school bus rides home gone awry that have occurred this school year under the eye of the school system’s transportation department. The others involved kindergarten students being dropped off without proper supervision but this is the only one to end in a court sentencing.
Video footage from the bus depicted Keels, an Oxon Hill resident, “knocking the child on his head” on one occasion, about a week before the initial complaint, and striking his upper body and in the stomach area on October 16, the day before the complaint was made, according the prosecutor.
Keels became frustrated when the mother repeatedly complained to the school system about suspected abuses, Hadfield said, “And I guess there was ill will between the mother and the bus monitor and the bus monitor basically took out her frustration on the child.
“It wasn’t like a punch in the face or slaps or things that you automatically look at and think immediately ‘assault and battery,’” Hadfield said. “But when you look at the scenario and the footage as a whole, in combination with her statement that she was taking it out on the child, that rose it to the level of assault.”
Keels was not officially charged until January after investigators had sufficient time to make their case for a warrant.
Bus drivers have been chided for dropping young children off in the wrong neighborhood more than once, but Sherman said the abuse incident, which had only been discussed among school officials behind closed doors because of personnel-protecting laws, is not symptomatic of a systemic problem.
“I think that each of these cases are idiosyncratic,” Sherman said. “That [criminal act] is certainly not endemic of our transportation department.
“This is a rare occurrence by an individual who just didn’t know boundaries.”
Before her termination, Keels was one of 25 bus monitors across the school district. The general job description includes watching over students while the bus driver watches the road.
School officials could not divulge information relating to the student’s individual performance levels or needs but Sherman said, “Sometimes [bus monitors] are assigned to specific students who need support it could be a physical disability, it could be any range of issues.”
Sherman said there is “generic” training for all employees because of the sensitivities involved with dealing with students of all ages and types. He could not speak specifically to the transportation department’s training criteria, but revered the majority of its employees for the work they do with thousands of students every school day.
“They must go through certain kinds of training and I’m sure that this heightened the awareness over at the transportation department,” he said.
Phone calls and messages to the director of the Department of Transportation were not returned.
Keels’s past performance in the school system cannot be divulged, and at press time school officials could not confirm how long Keels had worked at ACPS.
However, in 2007 she was charged with failing to pay attention while driving and driving without her license, and later convicted after not showing up for court, according to Alexandria General District Court records.