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Jenna's Story Raises Questions for Parents

Jenna Staehling Jenna Staehling
School bus video School bus video
Art Staehling, Jenna's Dad Art Staehling, Jenna's Dad
Julie Staehling, Jenna's Mom Julie Staehling, Jenna's Mom
Gary Blackburn, family's lawyer Gary Blackburn, family's lawyer

NewsChannel 5 investigates a crime that victimized a little girl.

It happened on a Metro school bus, but school officials aren't answering any questions about it.

Still, her parents want you to know their daughter has a face and a name.

And they hope Jenna's story will be a wake-up call for all parents.

In their daughter, Art and Julie Staehling want you to see a little girl who deserved better, a little girl for whom the rhythmic routines of everyday life are the only way to make sense of the world around her.

"She has to rehearse life -- it just doesn't happen naturally," Art Staehling tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

Jenna, you see, is autistic -- which makes it all the more difficult for her parents to accept that she would be betrayed by the very people who were supposed to protect her.

"It just breaks my heart that this happened to her and that I couldn't protect her from this at 11 years old," Julie Staehling says.

But video from a small Metro Schools special-education bus shows the day last fall that Jenna's routine was shattered by a 13-year-old special-education boy -- all while sitting just two rows behind the driver.

It's something her parents realized immediately as she got off the bus.

"Her pants were down around her hips," Art recalls. "And we asked her what happened. 'Jenna, why are your pants down around your hips, what's going on?"

Julie adds, "I had to pull everything out of her bit by bit and I'm not sure that she ever would have really told us."

"First," Art goes on, "she said 'a boy put his hand up my shirt.' I said, 'Jenna, are you sure?' 'Yeah, he put his hand.'"

And while her parents want her to be a face that the school system cannot just ignore, we will not show you exactly what the family's lawyer says that the school bus driver should have seen -- and stopped.

It was a sexual assault that dragged on for more than 20 minutes.

"It starts off, mildly placing arms around her and so forth," the family's lawyer, Gary Blackburn explains. "It progresses to direct contact that would really be inappropriate to discuss."

When it's over, Jenna presses her face against the school bus window.

"I'm sure that she probably had no idea what was going on or what was happening to her," Julie says. "And I am sure that she was petrified and probably just shrunk insider herself."

School transportation officials who reviewed the tape called it "very disturbing video."

One wrote, "There is no reason this driver should not have been able to see this disgusting act."

Yet, the driver seemed "totally uninterested and showed no remorse."

"She did nothing," Art says. "And she didn't care that she did nothing. It didn't even seem to bother her. Acted like just driving the bus was her only job, and that was it."

But assistant superintendent Ralph Thompson told a local newspaper at the time that the "tape did not provide concrete evidence."

Blackburn counters, "I'm not sure how Mr. Thompson would have taken the fact that the child from the seat with her pants pulled down. That would be fairly obvious."

Even more disturbing, when school officials pulled video from the bus, they discovered the same thing had happened the day before.

But -- get this -- they never told Jenna's parents.

"To find out it happened more than once, we didn't know it," Art insists. "To find out nobody helped, nobody did anything, nobody!"

At this point in the story, you might expect that the bus driver would have been immediately fired.

Instead, school officials transferred her from a special-education bus to a regular school bus.

"Metro schools, after all of that, still doesn't even fire her," Art says. "She quits after they reassign her. Metro schools has apparently no concern at all."

While Jenna doesn't talk about the assault, her parents see a difference in the how the routines of her life have been disturbed.

"I think that it deeply affected her," Julie says. "She's been very insecure, lots of trouble sleeping at night, and coming down to get up in the middle of the night and not being able to sleep. And she never had that problem before."

But by seeing Jenna, her parents hope it will cause others to make sure that Jenna's story doesn't become the story for another child.

"She's just got the sweetest heart in the world and to be treated like this is just so criminal," Art adds.

Prosecutors declined to charge the boy because he has his own developmental problems.

As for Jenna's family, they have a civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice over how special education students are treated.

Just before our story aired, they filed a lawsuit against the school system.

But the school system just isn't talking.

Mr. Thompson said -- because of the legal action -- he would not go on camera and answer questions so that other parents can know how their children are being protected.

Watch more videos and follow the stories at NC5 Investigates: Stories of Abuse

Back to NewsChannel 5 Investigates

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