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Student injured in fall from bus sues School Board

Naples Daily News

By Chris W. Colby

Friday, January 20, 2006

A high school student severely injured when he landed on his head after a tumble out the back of a moving school bus has sued the driver and the Collier County School Board.

But the School Board attorney said the boy, Jonathan Jackson, 17, was among a group of Golden Gate High School students who had threatened to harm the bus driver, David Bassan, during an argument about a cellular phone. Attorney Richard Withers said Jackson was hurt when he opened the emergency rear door and jumped out.

Tabitha Jackson, mother of the boy, filed the lawsuit Dec. 22, in Collier County Circuit Court on behalf of her son.

According to the lawsuit and the family’s Naples attorney, Sharon Hanlon, Jonathan Jackson did nothing to goad the driver, who had threatened to fight the boy.

“Our position is the bus driver started picking on my client for whatever reason. My client says he didn’t do anything,” Hanlon said.

On Oct. 26, Jackson was riding the after-school activities bus on Golden Gate Parkway. A nearby student was using a cell phone and was told by Bassan to turn it off. According to the lawsuit, the student did so.

Hanlon said there was some kind of discussion between the students and Bassan about rules banning use of cell phones on the bus. While Hanlon insists none of the students turned violent, Bassan began threatening Jackson, telling the boy “he was going to fight him and began acting in such a manner as plaintiff believed that his person was in danger,” according to the suit.

Hanlon said she doesn’t know yet why the conversation escalated, but Jackson feared for his safety. She cited witness statements to Collier County sheriff’s investigators that the students didn’t threaten the bus driver. Instead, several said the bus driver was at fault.

Hanlon said Bassan overreacted to the students and said he was driving the bus to the police station. That added to Jackson’s desire to flee.

After Jackson opened the door, Bassan accelerated the bus despite an alarm and lights that activate when the door is opened. Jackson fell out, landing on his head.

“I don’t think he planned on jumping out,” Hanlon said. The attorney said Jackson shouldn’t have opened the door, but he did so as an escape route, and it was the motion of the bus that pushed him out the back.

He suffered bleeding in the brain and was hospitalized for about two weeks. He was out of school for about six weeks. The lawsuit seeks $100,000, the maximum allowable award in liability cases involving municipal agencies.

But school officials blame Jackson for his own injuries. Withers said the bus driver acted appropriately according to his training and wasn’t disciplined for the altercation. According to the deputy’s report, the bus driver said Jackson repeatedly pulled up his shirt and “began to threaten him, stating that he was going to get him at the next stop.”

After the threat, Bassan was afraid for his safety, Withers said.

“He was threatened and thought it was a real threat, so he did what he was supposed to do and drove to the nearest police station. When the kids saw where he was going, that’s when the kids jumped out, and the one was injured,” Withers said.

Withers said he believes another student jumped out the back of the bus with Jackson, although he wasn’t injured. But while two students said Jackson jumped out the back door, two others said he fell.

Part of Hanlon’s argument is that the bus driver should have been more culturally sensitive to how Jackson, who is black, would respond to being threatened with police involvement.

Jackson has a spotless criminal record, but he has had friends with past involvement in the justice system, so threats of arrest would cause him a lot of anxiety, she argued. The bus driver should have foreseen that and is liable because he overreacted, Hanlon said.

Withers said the threat and the students’ jumping out of the bus on their own are the critical points in the case.

“To be honest, we’re not too impressed with the strength or validity of the plaintiff’s arguments,” Withers said.

© 2006 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.

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