Jurors heard conflicting accounts Wednesday about whether the Olympia School District is to blame for a former school bus driver molesting a 6-year-old girl on a bus.
Gary Shafer, 33, was sentenced last year to a 14½ years to life in prison for sexually assaulting three 6-year-old girls while acting as a “helper” on a route for Centennial Elementary School in late December 2010. Two victims’ families have sued the district, alleging it “knew or should have known” Shafer was likely to harm children.
Tacoma attorney Darrell Cochran seeks $2.25 million in damages in his suit. The trial began Wednesday before Thurston County Superior Court Judge Lisa Sutton.
During Cochran’s opening statement, he said the district has a “safety rule” that prohibits adults from riding in the same seats as children on buses, unless there is an educational purpose for them to be on the bus.
“The Olympia School District’s Transportation Department in the fall of 2010 allowed this man to ride along on whatever kindergarten bus he wanted, without a business reason, no educational reason for being with the kindergarten children,” Cochran said. “He was not driving, he was not learning the route, he was not a monitor, he was not getting paid for doing anything. As he told everyone, he just loved the children.”
Jerry Moberg, an attorney for the district, told the jury that it will hear evidence that Shafer had an employment purpose when he rode the bus – to learn the route so he could drive it and earn more money. There is no school district rule that prohibits “ride-along drivers” from sitting in the same seats as children, Moberg added.
It is standard district practice to allow bus drivers to ride along on routes to learn them, he said. There is any number of other reasons an adult might sit in the same seat as children, Moberg said – to perform bus driver evaluations, train or assist a driver with discipline, for example.
Moberg added that principals sit in the same seats as children at times.
“Every bus driver and every witness that will testify for the district will say that there is no rule” prohibiting adults from sitting in the bus seats as students, Moberg said.
The district performed a criminal background check before Shafer began working for the district in 2005, Moberg said. He passed. As soon as the first allegation against Shafer came to light, in January 2011, he was placed on administrative leave, not allowed to have contact with children, and later fired, Moberg added.
Shafer also had never previously been the subject of a complaint, Moberg said.
“Our number one priority is safety, absolutely,” he said.
Mario Paz, who was driving the school bus when the 6-year-old’s molestation occurred, testified Wednesday. During contradictory testimony, Paz told Cochran he was “correct” in stating that he did not follow the district’s safety rule in allowing Shafer to sit with the girl.
But under cross-examination by Moberg, Paz said “there is no rule” prohibiting adults from sitting in the same seats as children. Moberg also asked Paz if he was confused by Cochran’s questioning and if English was his second language; Paz answered “yes” to both.
Paz testified that he recalled Shafer twice riding with him as a “helper” to learn his route.
Cochran told the jury the girl suffers from post-traumatic stress, putting her at greater risk for alcoholism, relationship difficulties and anorexia.
“She knows what happened was wrong,” he said of the child.