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Colorado paraprofessional arrested after police say video shows her beating autistic child on school bus

A former Littleton Public Schools paraprofessional is facing a felony charge after police say video footage revealed she beat a non-verbal child with severe autism last month on a school bus that was transporting special-needs students.

Parents of children who rode that bus to and from the Joshua School in Englewood say they believe the abuse had been happening for months and that there are additional victims.

“I don’t want this to be something that’s hushed up,” Jessica Vestal, the boy’s mother, said of the video footage of the assault, which she made public through her attorney.

“I’m sure a lot of people would be like, ‘Why would you put this video of your kid out there?’ If you don’t look at it, the words don’t encompass it,” she added. “If he had to live through it, the least everybody else could do is pay attention to it so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Englewood police arrested Kiarra Jones, 29, on Friday and she has been charged with third-degree assault on an at-risk person, a Class 6 felony, according to the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. She is due in court May 3 for a preliminary hearing.

Littleton Public Schools fired Jones on March 19 after the district and law enforcement officials reviewed video footage of the previous day’s bus ride, district officials confirmed. The mother of the victim had complained about bruises on her son.

Jones is out of police custody after posting $5,000 bail, according to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

“This kind of behavior cannot be and is not tolerated,” Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Todd Lambert wrote in an email to families who rode on the impacted bus. “As parents, you trust us with the well-being of your children and you should never have to worry about them being harmed when they are in our care.”

Video of the March 18 incident — provided by attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai,  who plans to represent impacted families in an upcoming lawsuit — shows a woman who Mohamedbhai identified as Jones sitting next to a 10-year-old boy on the school bus.

Vestal said she could only stomach watching two minutes and 25 seconds of her son being beaten before asking police detectives to turn the video off.

In the video, the child, who The Denver Post is not identifying, is sitting calmly when Jones, unprovoked, is seen elbowing the boy in the stomach, punching him in the head and slamming his head into the bus window. At times, Jones’ actions in the video are obstructed by a bus seat, but Vestal said Jones also stomped on her son’s feet and hit his legs.

Englewood police have surveillance footage of three dates this year that show Jones allegedly abusing the disabled boy, according to an arrest affidavit.

In court documents, police who watched the videos described Jones punching the child so hard that his head flung back to hit the seat. Investigators wrote that the boy began crying and pushing Jones away, but she continued her alleged assault. Police said it appears in the three videos that Jones also assaulted another child.

“I was just in disbelief”

On March 18, Vestal noticed bruising on her son’s foot and thigh. When Vestal contacted his school, the autism-focused Joshua School, officials there said her son did not have bruising when they put his shoes and socks on for dismissal.

The boy’s mother texted Jones asking whether anything happened on the bus. Vestal said Jones told her nothing happened, but that sometimes the boy sits on his foot.

Vestal said she was skeptical.

The mother contacted the Littleton Public Schools transportation department — which is contracted to bus students to and from the private school — and shared photos of the bruising, asking for an explanation.

The next day, Vestal said she was contacted by the school district and law enforcement, saying they had enough video footage to charge Jones with abuse.

“I was just in disbelief,” Vestal said.

Vestal said she and Jones were friendly. The mother bought Jones Christmas presents. Vestal made Jones tea when she wasn’t feeling well. The two texted on occasion.

The paraprofessional had texted Vestal earlier in the year saying her son had a visibly poor reaction to one of the staff members, who he pushed and ran away from, the boy’s mother said.

Then Vestal said her son came home from school covered in bruises.

“When he did come home and we saw those bruises, the seed had already been planted,” Vestal said.

She assumed the other staff member Jones named had caused them and had a meeting with the school, saying her son should not be around this staffer again.

Vestal noted it can be difficult to determine whether a severely autistic child is hurting themselves throughout the day, so she and other parents on Jones’s bus chalked up other injuries — bruises, black eyes, scratches — to accidental injuries.

Vestal has a record of 15 dates when her son came home from school injured. Police, she said, confirmed three of those dates coincide with video footage of Jones’s alleged abuse.

The Englewood Police Department’s investigation is ongoing.

Months earlier, Vestal had contacted the Joshua School, inquiring about bruises on her son’s arm, neck and thigh. Emails provided to The Denver Post show Littleton Public Schools employees talking about reviewing video footage from the bus to determine whether something happened there.

“We reviewed the video and there is nothing out of the ordinary that occurs during the ride home,” Michelle Molina, the Littleton district’s transportation operations supervisor, wrote in an email.

Now, Vestal and other parents question whether the school district was truthful.

Outside of releasing the superintendent’s letter to parents, Littleton Public Schools did not respond to questions about the allegations against Jones.

In a statement, Cindy Lystad, executive director of the Joshua School, confirmed that Littleton Public Schools officials said nothing was out of the ordinary in the video footage they reviewed.

Lystad said the Joshua School is “devastated about these terrible incidents involving the LPS employee. We share in our families’ outrage and disappointment upon learning of these abuse allegations against our students.”

Lystad stressed the Joshua School operates independently from Littleton Public Schools.

“The abuses of special needs children continue to occur because school districts treat this community as a burden rather than a blessing,” attorney Mohamedbhai said in a statement. “School districts routinely fail to train and support those who work with special needs student populations. Choices of where funding goes reveal value choices and school districts lack expertise and compassion to protect our most vulnerable student population.”

Other instances of Colorado school bus attendants accused of abusing children with autism have been reported in recent years.

St. Vrain Valley School District bus assistant Monica Burke pleaded guilty in 2017 to kicking and spraying disinfectant in the face of a student with disabilities. Last year, Poudre School District paraprofessional Tyler Zanella was arrested after video showed him striking at least two students on the bus, according to 9News.

The Littleton Public Schools email to families said Jones was hired in August after “satisfactory reference checks and after passing a thorough background check.”

“She had very limited access to students during her employment with LPS,” the email said. “She has had no contact with students since March 19, the day her employment was terminated.”

The email confirmed police believe there may be at least one other victim.

“We’re going to question everyone forever”

Brittany Yarbrough, the mother of an 11-year-old severely autistic, non-verbal boy on Jones’s bus, is left to wonder whether injuries her son suffered since Jones’s hiring were of his own making or at the hands of an adult she trusted.

In September, Yarbrough took her son to the hospital after noticing an injury on his foot. His toe was broken, she said.

Yarbrough contacted the school, and nobody knew what happened, she said.

“He can’t tell us where it hurts and explain what he’s feeling,” Yarbrough said. “We thought, ‘Maybe he somehow hurt himself,’ and left it at that, which is so frustrating.”

Yarbrough is combing through other injuries her son endured throughout the year, wondering what really happened. She said police contacted her, saying they think her son may be a victim of Jones’s abuse.

She hasn’t seen video evidence yet as police continue to investigate.

“I feel betrayed,” Yarbrough said. “We fight so much with districts and schools and teachers to make sure the kids have everything with their IEP (individualized education program) they need and that it’s being followed and that they have the right programming. I never considered the bus for a second because it seems so basic… We have this assumption they’re keeping our kids safe because that’s their duty. Now I feel like we’re going to question everyone forever.”

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