A racially motivated "near-riot" on a Payson Unified School District bus has spurred charges of aggravated assault against the driver and prompted his resignation. Now, mothers are questioning the district's safety and discipline policies.
The Dec. 14 incident took place on a Julia Randall Elementary School bus when a dispute broke out between two Native American students and a larger group of Hispanic students.
The shouting, shoving and hitting that took place at the back of the bus eventually involved the bus driver, as well. The driver allegedly shouted at one of the Native American girls, grabbed her by the jacket and prevented her from leaving the bus. Some accounts suggest he hit or slapped her, although that allegation remains in dispute.
The second Native American girl was not involved in the physical confrontation, but her parents later moved her to another school because of concerns about ongoing harassment.
Alyssa Escalante said school officials called her 9-year-old daughter into the principal's office with one of the girls who harassed her to "work it out." She said this was done without telling the parents about the incident or the conference with the student.
The parents of the Native American girls both say that school and district officials did nothing to prevent ongoing racial harassment of their daughters. They complained that school officials didn't give them details of the incident and met with their daughters without involving their parents.
School officials have refused any comment on the incident, citing federal laws concerning the confidentiality of school records. However, police reports obtained by the Roundup detailed the incident, as did interviews with the families of the two Native American girls. The Payson Police have asked the Gila County Attorney's Office to file assault charges against the driver.
The parents of the two Native American girls said their daughters look Hispanic because both girls have dark skin and one's last name is Escalante and that some Hispanic students sometimes pick on them -- saying they aren't really Native American but Mexicans -- and they should be proud of that.
On Friday, Dec. 14, Joanna Carol's 12-year-old, sixth-grade daughter was the target of Hispanic students while on a school bus. Carol maintains that the driver failed to prevent the Hispanic students from taunting and hitting her daughter. Instead, the driver turned on her when she finally shouted racially charged insults at her alleged harassers. When her daughter tried to escape the bus, the driver dragged her back onto the bus, grabbed her around the neck, yelled at her and then ultimately shoved her off the bus, said Carol.
Carol also says the driver hit her daughter in the face, but police could not confirm whether that blow took place based on either a videotape running on the bus or witness accounts.
The bus driver, 65-year-old Payson resident Frank Schaefer, denies hitting Carol's daughter, but admits he pushed her off the bus after she became uncooperative and started yelling at him and calling Hispanic students names like "stupid" and telling them "you should all go home to Mexico."
Schaefer now faces possible charges of aggravated assault in connection with the incident, and told the Roundup he has resigned after working eight years as a bus driver.
Police reviewed a videotape that showed much of the altercation before deciding the driver should face assault charges.
Carol said the incident climaxed years of harassment her daughter has suffered because of the color of her skin.
"Because of the ongoing harassment these kids have put my daughter through, that day when she got on the bus, she went to the very back to sit because she said it was the only place she felt safe," said Carol.
"By the time it got to the corner of Colcord Road and Bonita Street, the situation was already out of control because the driver hadn't done anything about it. They're supposed to stop the bus, kick off the kids causing problems and give them a white referral slip, not allowing them back on the bus until a parent has come in to discuss the problem."
Instead, said Carol, Schaefer stopped the bus at Colcord and Bonita and when her daughter tried to get off, the driver grabbed her by the collar of her coat and dragged her back onto the bus, all the while yelling at her and calling her names.
Schaefer said the district never provided him with any written policy on disciplining students on a bus.
He said that his lawyer recently told him that because the kids are in the driver's custody while on the bus, the drivers have the same right to impose discipline as a parent.
District Superintendent Casey O'Brien did not return calls seeking a comment on district policy for disciplining students while on a bus.
Carol acknowledged that her daughter's response to the other students escalated the confrontation, but said the bus driver should have headed off the problem sooner and that district officials should have responded to her complaints weeks ago.
"I'm not stupid," said Carol. "I know kids will be kids and my daughter should not have said what she said, but it doesn't excuse the actions of the bus driver in hitting my daughter."
Police reports indicate that after being confronted by at least two "Hispanic" kids on the bus, Carol's daughter made the statement, "all Mexicans are stupid" and that they "should go back to Mexico."
Carol said her daughter admitted she made those statements and that the bus driver told her that she "cannot say those kinds of things.
"I don't judge anyone by the color of their skin or their background, and even though my daughter said what she did, and I told her it was really bad to say that, I teach my kids to be respectful," said Carol. "So I never thought my daughter would be caught up in anything like this."
The police indicate Schaefer was in the process of filling out a referral slip about the incident when the school resource officer, Mike McAnerny, first approached him in the district bus barn about the alleged assault.
At that time, Schaefer acknowledged the incident and noted that Carol's daughter wasn't even supposed to be on the bus that day.
"This student should not be on this bus. She is not registered for this bus," said Schaefer.
Additionally, none of the witnesses could say they saw Schaefer hit Carol's daughter, only that he told her to "shut up" and then pushed her off the bus.
An on-board video reviewed by police shows Carol's daughter sitting in the back of the bus and being twice confronted by female students. It then shows an argument between Carol's daughter and numerous "Hispanic" students surrounding her, according to the police report.
The video also shows two female students hitting Carol's daughter several times from behind.
The police report said what happened next was out of the view of the camera, but that Schaefer can be heard telling "someone to ‘shut up' several times," and "you get out of here."
The police report said several students' mouths dropped, "because of what they saw," before Carol's daughter was pushed out of the bus by Schaefer.
Schaefer admits telling the girl to shut up and telling her she couldn't say things like she had said. But the driver said he never hit her in any way and only grabbed her by the collar and then pushed her off the bus after she became uncooperative.
Escalante said her 9-year-old daughter, who has suffered similar harassment, was also on the bus and witnessed the near-brawl. Escalante said she has decided to remove her daughter from Julia Randall Elementary School and place her in another school, due to fears for her safety following the "near-riot."
She said her daughter came home in tears the day of the incident, complaining she didn't feel safe on the bus or at school.
For the last two years, the girl had suffered from ongoing, unchecked racial bullying since kindergarten in Payson, said Escalante.
"I'm not saying my daughter is a saint, but she was, in my opinion, the victim of racial targeting from the Hispanic kids in Payson's schools," said Escalante.
Escalante said the problem came to a head the week before winter break on the same day as the school bus incident when Hispanic students argued with her about her Native American heritage and her Hispanic last name.
Escalante said students pelted her daughter with "foul language and thoughts" directed at her racial heritage, and that the school and district's poor handling of the situation forced her to remove her from Julia Randall Elementary and place her in another school before the holiday break.
She said the thing that prompted her to make the move final was the way school officials mishandled the incident with her daughter.
"When I learned that Principal Varner (the principal at Julia Randall Elementary School) had called my daughter without my knowledge or consent and one of the students involved in the bus incident into his office on Dec. 17 to work it out, I got a little mad," Escalante said. "I just don't think it was the appropriate way to handle the situation, especially not even informing me beforehand about what he was doing."
O'Brien would not comment on the specific case involving Escalante's daughter, but said students are routinely called into principals' offices and that there is no legal obligation on the part of the district or school to inform parents prior to such meetings.
"But as far as follow-up notices, we do send those to parents or guardians," he added.