Beaufort News

Bluffton principal says officer may be lying about school bus abuse case — ‘Maybe he’s CYA’

Christine Brown, principal of Bluffton Elementary School
Christine Brown, principal of Bluffton Elementary School

Bluffton Elementary School principal Christine Brown has accused a school resource officer of lying about the handling of child abuse suspicions in 2014, an incident that’s now central to a pending lawsuit, according to recently released court records.

It was not clear Wednesday whether Brown or any other Beaufort County School District employees have been reprimanded in connection with the case, in which bus monitor Lillian Jackson was originally suspected of leaving marks on a nonverbal, autistic child in September 2014 but was not arrested until the child’s mother complained of fresh bruises on the 4-year-old boy in February 2015.

When asked in a June 22 deposition why she and a school resource officer had starkly different accounts of the first incident of alleged abuse — Officer Christopher DeCrane reportedly says he never got a report — the principal responded, “Maybe he’s CYA (cover your a--).”

Brown did not return calls this week about the issue, which is included in documents filed in Beaufort County Circuit Court last week as part of a lawsuit against the district, Jackson and her former employer, bus management company Durham School Services.

Superintendent Jeff Moss, who declined to answer questions Wednesday, did not try to determine whether his staff met their legal obligation to report suspected child abuse in the wake of a bus monitor’s arrest in 2015, according to a July deposition he gave to attorneys for the child’s mother.

“It’s a concern as a superintendent whether or not we were — yeah, if we did something wrong,” Moss said during his deposition, “... for purposes of both the lawsuit and if there’s any internal problems.”

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The plaintiff’s attorneys, Skip Utsey and Ronnie Crosby of PMPED Law Firm in Walterboro, filed partial depositions of Moss, Brown and a Durham employee on Sept. 8.

They cover a dispute between Brown and a school resource officer, Christopher DeCrane, over whether the district told law enforcement when it first suspected the child was being abused on the school bus to Bluffton Elementary in September 2014.

If the district did not make a report, it would have failed to meet the state’s mandatory reporting requirements for suspected child abuse and neglect. Brown or other staff would then face consequences under the law, as well as district policy.

Moss said in his July 8 deposition that, at the very least, Brown should have documented that she called DeCrane on Sept. 16, 2014, and asked him to watch bus videos that showed Jackson covering the child’s mouth as he coughed. Brown admitted in her deposition that she did not do so and said she was not informed by the assistant principal or school nurse when the child came to school one week later with fresh marks.

It was not the first time that assistant principal Kenyatta Frederick — who is now an assistant principal at Powder Springs Elementary School in Powder Springs, Ga. — withheld information from Brown, Brown alleged in her June 22 deposition. One or two other times, Brown said, Frederick “would try to handle things on her own and then not inform me of what she said.”

“If I had been informed (about the subsequent marks on the child), it would have been handled differently,” Brown said.

The transcripts also show that Moss never followed up with staff or reviewed the district’s materials on the case after February 2015, the month Jackson was arrested. He did not attempt to determine whether Brown or other staff appropriately reported their suspicions of abuse in September 2014, before the child continued riding the bus with his alleged abuser for another five months.

“I mean, what you’re asking is who’s telling the truth, is Ms. Brown telling the truth or is the law enforcement officer telling the truth, and I — I can’t discern between those two,” Moss said in July. “But I can tell you that if Ms. Brown said she contacted (law enforcement), I believe she contacted them.”

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When questioned further, Moss said he would look into the different accounts of whether or not the district met its reporting requirements.

Several of those accounts suggest the district did not.

In the February 2015 police report, Frederick, the former assistant principal, says law enforcement was never notified about the previous September’s incident.

Brown gave police a statement about that September incident as well, noting the bus monitor was trying to help the student cover his mouth and “no harm was intended.” She says nothing of reporting the incident to DeCrane.

District spokesman Jim Foster wrote in an email to the Beaufort County school board in February 2015 that law enforcement was not notified of the September incident.

And DeCrane has now testified that Brown never asked him to watch bus videos in September.

Brown is the only person who claims in court records that the district met its reporting requirements.

“I took the steps I thought necessary to make sure it was handled,” she said in her June 22 deposition.

The principal said she called DeCrane on Sept. 16, 2014, after viewing a portion of bus video from that day and worrying it might be criminal conduct for the bus monitor to place her hands on the child.

She said she left DeCrane alone in her office to watch the videos but did not tell him the severity of the marks on the child or that staff had noticed marks on the boy on three separate days. She had a photo of the scratch marks but did not show it to DeCrane, according to her deposition.

When DeCrane told her he was not going to write a report, Brown said she took no further action. She did not document the call, DeCrane’s response or the district’s investigation at that time.

However, defense attorneys said in court last week that there is a digital record of DeCrane checking into Brown’s office for about a minute and a half on the day she claims to have called him.

Earlier, in Brown’s deposition, the plaintiff’s attorneys asked the principal why DeCrane would write in his February 2015 report that he was never notified of the incident in September 2014. Brown said, “Maybe he’s CYA (cover your a--).”

“OK,” Utsey responded. “Well, I mean, somebody could say that about you, too, right? ... I mean you’ve got no documentation that you ever talked to Officer DeCrane in September 2014, do you?”

“A lot of people say a lot of things,” Brown said.

The attorneys also asked her whether she thought in February 2015 that DeCrane was “trying to possibly cover his rear.”

“At that point,” she answered, “I wasn’t thinking about him and his paperwork.”

Last week, Moss released a statement denying that the school district has tried to cover up the child’s abuse. He also said the district instituted training for bus drivers and bus monitors who transport special-needs students a year and a half before severing its contract with Durham in April 2016, and conducted a training session for principals and district leadership on mandatory reporting requirements.

Attempts to reach the Bluffton Police Department, DeCrane and Frederick were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit against the district is pending, as are criminal charges against Jackson.

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca