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Duluth school bus company settles with boy grabbed by driver

A Duluth busing company settled a civil lawsuit brought against it by the mother of an elementary school student who was grabbed and made to sit up in his seat by a bus driver in late 2016.

The Voyageur Bus Co. agreed in District Court in Duluth in November to avoid trial and pay $45,000 in damages and fees — with $25,775 of the total going into an interest-bearing credit union account to be accessed later by the now 8-year-old boy. Referee John B. Schulte approved the settlement this week, closing the case.

"It's one of those things that happens once in a while," said Robert Mathias, the Duluth-based attorney for the family. "There wasn't any evil intent on the part of anybody. It's something that happens when kids ride on the school bus. In this case, the driver overstepped his bounds a little bit."

In making the then 7-year-old boy sit up in his seat, the driver grabbed the boy's shoulders and also his shirt-collar, said court documents filed in the case. The December 2016 incident prompted the boy to fear riding the bus along with additional symptoms which met criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, said the boy's therapist in an evaluation filed in the case.

The lawsuit originated last April, more than 16 months after the incident. The lawsuit said the driver caused "embarrassment, physical discomfort, and emotional distress to (the boy)."

Court documents described the conflict between the bus driver and the boy as happening on the way to Myers-Wilkins Elementary School, 1027 N. Eighth Ave. E.

The boy had been lying on the bus seat and refusing to get up, said court documents.

The boy "refused to sit up when his bus driver told him to, so his bus driver grabbed him by the collar to sit him up and before this had stopped four times to grab him by the shoulders and sit him up," said a letter filed in court by Krystle Haugen, the boy's treating psychotherapist at the Human Development Center in Duluth.

Mathias corrected the record with the News Tribune, saying, "It was only two stops, not four, where this was involved." Mathias added that the driver had asked the boy to sit up in order to make room for another passenger.

Following the incident, the boy experienced nightmares, diminished interest in activities, a persistently negative outlook, irritability, angry outbursts, problems concentrating, bed-wetting and more. He was recommended to take part in eight to 25 weeks of trauma-focused therapy.

"His symptoms were impairing his education," Haugen wrote in her evaluation.

The family's lawsuit sought more than $50,000 in damages.

In the settlement, Voyageur "admitted that their driver touched (the boy), but denied that (he) suffered any psychological injuries."

The Voyageur Bus Co. declined to talk to the News Tribune. It is not known what internal consequences, if any, were faced by the bus driver.

On its website, Voyageur Bus Co. said it contracts to operate school buses for Duluth Public Schools, and multiple charter schools in the city. Mathias said it was only certain routes Voyageur handled for the district. The Duluth Public Schools administration could not be reached for comment.

All told, the $45,0000 settlement saw a third of it, $15,000, go to the attorney, Mathias, and additional money to expenses incurred by both Mathias and the boy's mother. Court records show that she began to drive her son to and from school following the incident, accumulating more than 4,000 miles across 500 days of transit — a value of $2,200, according to court records.

Early on in the case, the bus company denied wrongdoing by citing state statute and its allowance for reasonable use of force by a school bus driver — "to restrain a child or pupil, or to prevent bodily harm or death to another."

Mathias said circumstances in the case didn't meet standards for use of force.

Of the settlement, Mathias concluded, "It's certainly a very reasonable amount given the circumstances."

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