A civil lawsuit against Poudre School District, Colorado Department of Education and the state Board of Education has been filed in U.S. District Court by the families of five children police say were harmed by a former school bus paraprofessional.
The civil lawsuit, filed Friday in Denver, is separate from the criminal proceedings against Tyler Zanella, a former bus attendant who is facing 164 charges, including 34 felony counts of assault against at-risk victims, for incidents police say took place while he was working on PSD buses transporting children with special needs to and from school.
Police have identified at least 11 named victims, primarily nonverbal autistic children, in the criminal case through video surveillance from buses Zanella was assigned to last spring.
Here’s what we know about the claims made in the lawsuit.
Note: As of late Monday, Poudre School District officials had not responded to requests for comment on the civil lawsuit, nor had a law firm the Coloradoan was told would represent the district in the civil case.
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Lawsuit alleges Poudre School District withheld footage from police
The civil complaint includes an allegation that PSD intentionally withheld additional video surveillance from Fort Collins Police Services investigators during their initial investigation.
Fort Collins police utilized video to identify all of the named victim’s in Zanella’s case. They initially identified one victim, a kindergartener, and arrested Zanella’s on multiple charges related to that child on May 24. A week later, police announced they had identified five more victims while reviewing video provided by the school district, bringing the total at that time to six named victims in the case. Zanella faced nearly 130 charges connected to those six children. At that time, the district publicly said it had no additional video footage of Zanella’s routes.
But on Sept. 19, the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office filed 35 additional charges against Zanella related to five more victims. Fort Collins Police Services spokesperson Brandon Barnes told the Coloradoan police recommended filing those charges on June 28 based on additional review of video surveillance and investigation.
A parent of three of the victims, each identified by initials in the court filings, was told the district only retains “a few days” worth of video surveillance from its buses, while law enforcement later learned it was retained “for many months,” the civil lawsuit contends.
“We talked to folks who indicated that the police department was not provided full access to all of the tapes, and that the school district was deciding what it was going to produce,” attorney Stephen J. Baity told the Coloradoan on Monday. “And ultimately, when the police department received the full tapes or all of the tapes, they found additional victims.”
Poudre School District officials had not responded to requests for comment as of 9 p.m. Monday. An attorney with Lyons Gaddis, the law firm Baity said he was told would be representing PSD in the civil lawsuit, did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment Monday.
Fort Collins police do not comment on civil lawsuits and cannot comment on the criminal case since it’s still an ongoing investigation, spokesperson Meagan Robinson said.
Attorney representing families: ‘We need to understand what was really going on’
Victims’ families have been able to review the video surveillance that led to the filing of the criminal charges against Zanella at the Fort Collins police headquarters and district attorney’s office but have not received their own copies, Baity said.
His law firm, California-based The Ozzello Practice, has also not received copies of all available footage, he said, but now hopes to through discovery in the civil lawsuit.
“I think we need to understand what was really going on in this situation,” Baity said. “I’m being very cautious about not interfering with the criminal case, but we’re interested in gathering basic information that we don’t have at this point in time.”
Plaintiffs did not request a specific dollar amount, choosing to let a jury determine “compensatory damages” for each of the eight claims of relief spelled out in the lawsuit.
The Ozzello Practice is representing five of the victims, including three who are siblings, along with their parents and/or guardians. The families of at least three other victims identified by police in video surveillance have retained legal counsel with other law firms, Baity said.
The Coloradoan is not identifying the victims or their families because it does not typically name child victims in a case.
Zanella, 36, is free on a $60,000 bond awaiting his next court appearance, a disposition hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Oct. 18 before McDonald in Courtroom 4B of the Larimer County Justice Center in Fort Collins.
Additional claims made in the lawsuit include improper influence in Zanella’s hiring, failure of PSD staff to report abuse
All five victims involved identified in the civil lawsuit filed by Baity, who is based in Denver, are legally disabled and were required to be strapped into their seats on the school buses, with one requiring a more secure five-point harness, the court filing reads. Four of the five are nonverbal, Baity said.
Four of the victims in the civil case were students at Shepardson Elementary School; the fifth was a student at Bacon Elementary. All five were between the ages of 6 and 11 when police say the abuse occurred.
The lawsuit says video footage includes sound and shows Zanella striking students with his fist and cellphone on or near the head, banging the heads of some against the school bus windows, verbally harassing and taunting them, hitting one student on the leg, touching the genitals of another in way that would constitute sexual battery, and making racially derogatory statements toward a biracial victim.
“The tapes are disturbing,” Baity said.
The lawsuit contends that additional acts of abuse, potentially involving other victims, would have likely been discovered if PSD had adequately investigated reports made by parents in January and February and reviewed video from the buses at that time.
The plaintiffs also contend that Zanella never should have been hired to a position helping vulnerable children with special needs ride school buses. Zanella pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor child abuse charge in 2012 in Adams County, where it was determined he was drinking heavily and became drunk while an infant had been left in his care. He also has two drunk-driving convictions, one of which was finalized in a Larimer County courtroom Aug. 18, 2023, just 11 days before he began working for PSD.
The lawsuit claims his hiring and subsequent supervision was influenced by his girlfriend, who is the mother of one of his two children and was working for the school district as a bus dispatcher.
Additional claims in the lawsuit address concerns about how bus drivers, integrated services staff working with the victims, school administrators and others reported or failed to report abuse they saw or heard on buses and injuries they observed on the students. The lawsuit states those concerns were either reported to a supervisor who failed to act upon those reports or not reported at all, both of which constitute violations of Colorado’s mandatory-reporter laws. If they were not reported or reported to a supervisor instead of law enforcement or other state agencies, as the mandatory-reporter laws require, the district would be negligent in its duties to properly train its employees about those requirements.
Why the Colorado Department of Education, state Board of Education were named in the lawsuit
The Colorado Department of Education and state Board of Education were also named as defendants based on their roles in overseeing PSD and other school districts in the state.
Another 50 people, identified simply as “Does,” were also listed as defendants. Those were other employees of the school district and witnesses whose names were redacted in police reports who had knowledge of the abuse who failed to report it or take action to prevent it.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Baity said, because claims involve violations of both federal and state law and plaintiffs were concerned about potential delays if it were moved from a state court to district court.
The primary claims brought forth in the lawsuit are for deprivation of students’ rights, which provides civil relief through Title 42, Section 1983 of the United States Code, although violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, student 504 learning plans and state hiring and reporting laws are also alleged.
All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in court. Arrests and charges are merely accusations by law enforcement until, and unless, a suspect is convicted of a crime.
Reporter Kelly Lyell covers education, breaking news, some sports and other topics of interest for the Coloradoan. Contact him at [email protected], twitter.com/KellyLyell or facebook.com/KellyLyell.news.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Families of 5 kids police say were abused by ex-bus attendant sue PSD
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