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NC5 Investigates: Stories of Abuse

Feds Open Civil Rights Probe of Metro Schools

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Jenna Jenna
Gilbert with his mother Gilbert with his mother

In another "NewsChannel 5 Investigates" exclusive, we've learned that a federal investigation is now targeting Metro schools.

Civil rights investigators want to know more about the sexual assaults of special education students on Metro school buses and what the city is doing to protect them.

It follows questions first raised by our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

The U.S. Justice Department notified Metro officials in a letter this week that they have opened what they call a preliminary inquiry.

But we discovered Metro schools have been through this type of investigation before.

Still, it did not stop these children from being sexually assaulted.

Our investigation began with the sexual assault of an 11-year-old autistic girl named Jenna -- an assault on a Metro school bus right behind the driver.

"Because of her speech and language, you're hoping that maybe she's got something confused, you're hoping that maybe this isn't true," recalled Jenna's father, Art Staehling.

Then, there was the molestation of a 9-year-old disabled boy named Gilbert, who finally told his mom about what a 19-year-old special education student coerced him into doing.

Mother: "What did he say?"
Gilbert: "He my friend."
Mother: "That he's your friend?"
Gilbert: "He want me to lick him."

"As a parent it's devastating," remembered Gilbert's mother, Kimberly Lopez-Ruiz. "You don't want this to ever happen to your child. You don't want it to be as bad as what happened."

But, now, lawyers for Gilbert have told a judge that a former school official has told them that "she believed that an incident like the one that is the subject matter of this lawsuit would occur and expressed those concerns" to higher-ups.

However, she says, those higher-ups did nothing about it.

"Why is a 19-year-old boy able to be on the bus with a 9-year-old boy and no precautions are taking for their safety?" Lopez-Ruiz asked.

And there's more.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates also obtained a letter in which the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights warned Metro back in 2000 that "the District's failure to ... ensure the safety of [special-education] students riding school buses" denied those students "an appropriate education."

Metro promised to do more to protect its students, but apparently it wasn't enough to protect Gilbert or Jenna.

Art Staehling said, "I don't understand not wanting to protect them. But it's mandatory that we protect them."

And that's what the Justice Department wants to know: has Metro met its obligations to protect Jenna, Gilbert and other special education students?

As for the kids, Phil Williams says he's told that Jenna is doing better than Gilbert.

Gilbert's reaction has been so strong and negative his family has been forced to place him in a facility for long-term care.

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

Back to NewsChannel 5 Investigates

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