The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the Stokes County Board of Education is not liable for an incident in which a van driver sexually assaulted a disabled student 21 times over two days. That’s partly because the driver was employed by an independent contractor and the school system cannot be held liable for the independent contractor’s actions, the court said.
But the court also said that school officials could have prevented the sexual assault if a monitor had been on the van. The Stokes County school system had provided a monitor when the student rode a yellow school bus, but that changed when the school system contracted transportation services to an independent contractor, Yadkin Valley Economic Development District (YVEDDI) in 2013. According to court papers and testimony at a hearing, the student’s mother was never notified and the issue was never brought up during a meeting about the student’s individualized education plan.
“Because the Board’s customary practice had been to provide transportation for (the student) on an exceptional students school bus staffed with a safety monitor, we emphasize that (the student’s) injury was one that could have been prevented,” the court said in its ruling.
However, the court upheld a decision by a Stokes County judge to grant summary judgment in favor of the school board because state case law says that school systems can outsource transportation services to a contractor and cannot be held liable for the contractor’s actions.
“There is no evidence in the record to suggest the Board retained the right to control the manner in which YVEDDI would transport students...,” the court said. “YVEDDI hired and controlled the drivers, owned its own vehicles, determined its routes, and set its own policies. The Board researched and reviewed YVEDDI’s reputation, safety plans, and after contracting, provided the names and addresses of students to be transported, along with bell times.”
The court also found that there was insufficient evidence that the student was discriminated against because of her gender or her disability.
The student and her mother filed a lawsuit in Stokes Superior Court in December 2018 against YVEDDI and the Stokes County Board of Education. The claims against YVEDDI have previously been dismissed. Attorneys for the student and mother appealed a February 2020 decision by Judge Eric Morgan of Stokes Superior Court to grant summary judgment, which means he ruled in the school board’s favor without going to trial.
Kirk Sanders, one of the attorneys for the student and her mother, said Tuesday that he plans to file an appeal with the N.C. Supreme Court.
“The Court of Appeals upheld everting the plaintiff had stated that this injury was foreseeable and this student was vulnerable and susceptible to attack,” he said. “In fact, it was so well demonstrated that the court in the majority opinion that there is no genuine dispute about the foreseeability of (the student’s) injury.”
Sanders said the court felt constrained by precedent from finding the school system liable because there was an independent contractor.
“The school had a heightened standard of care and they contracted away their responsibility,” Sanders said. Either the N.C. General Assembly or the N.C. Supreme Court has to address that issue, he said.
The student, who was 20-years-old at the time, is severely disabled with the functional capacity of a first-grade student that rendered her incapable of consenting to sex, according to the ruling. She also has multiple medical conditions, including diabetes, that required constant adult supervision. Prior to 2013, the student traveled to school via a yellow school bus that had a school monitor. But in 2013, the school system chose to contract with YVEDDI for transportation services, and the student began riding a van driven by Robert Anthony King.
In December 2015, King stopped the van multiple times and sexually assaulted the student 21 times. The student had no capacity to understand what happened to her or explain it to her mother. It was only after a Stokes County resident complained about King’s operation of the van that YVEDDI officials reviewed security camera footage from the van and discovered the sexual assault, according to court papers.
YVEDDI officials contacted law-enforcement, and King was fired, court papers said. Stokes County school officials never investigated the incident and did not report it to the State Board of Education, as it was required to do, according to the ruling.
King, 55, was convicted of several counts of statutory sex offense and sexual activity by a custodian and he was sentenced to a minimum of about five years. King was released from state prison on Aug. 1 and he is currently on parole.