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Colorado bus aide sentenced for assaulting autistic student

Posted August 25

— Over six days, Shiva Rai was kicked and hit, sprayed in the face with aerosol disinfectant, berated and told he was disgusting by an aide on a bus serving a Colorado school for autistic students.

On Friday, the aide, 52-year-old Monica Burke, was sentenced to 20 months in jail and five years' probation after she pleaded guilty in July to assaulting an at-risk person. She also was ordered to perform 360 hours of community service.

The punishment came after Rai's family reached a $3.85 million settlement from the St. Vrain Valley School District, which had employed Burke, family attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai said.

District Judge Ingrid Bakke sentenced Burke after hearing emotional statements from Rai's family and Burke, and the playing of excerpts of a school bus videotape showing Burke kicking a defenseless Rai and spraying him with the disinfectant.

Courtroom spectators gasped and one uttered "my God" as the excerpts were shown.

"You spray something toxic at something you want to kill," Rai's father, Vhim Rai, told the judge. "We pray and ask that no other at-risk person has to go through what we went through."

Burke's sentencing capped a case that exposed the vulnerabilities of those who are unable to report abuse — and are thus acutely at risk.

The case drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which reached a compliance agreement with the school district that includes proper hiring and training of staff, ensuring bus camera footage is preserved for at least six months, and other conditions.

About one in 68 school-aged children have autism or related disorders, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in March. The effects can range from mild social interaction problems to repetitive behaviors and the inability to speak.

Shiva Rai — the 21-year-old son of a Nepalese-American family in Longmont — cannot communicate verbally and is extremely sensitive to sound.

The school district bused him daily to Firefly Autism, a nonprofit school in Denver. It was during those 50-mile (80-kilometer) trips that the abuse occurred — documented on video over six days in August 2016.

An alert teacher reported that he thought he saw Burke screaming at Rai during a bus stop and that "Shiva was raising his hands to protect himself," according to an arrest affidavit by Longmont police Detective Mark Cooper.

Authorities examined the video before charging Burke and the bus driver, William E. Hall Jr., who has pleaded not guilty to failing to report the assaults. The arrest affidavit noted that Burke had been on the job for several months.

"The circumstances surrounding Shiva's abuse provide a somber reminder of the capacity of some to commit acts of cruelty against the most innocent and vulnerable members of our community," Mohamedbhai said.

Burke's attorney, Tanner Spracklen, said Burke had suffered severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for years after she was raped as a teenager. He said Burke received little to no training for assisting autistic and other special-needs students.

Burke told the judge that she had been suffering "pent-up rage and unresolved issues in my life, and unfortunately Shiva was the target."

Matthew Wiggins, a spokesman for the school district, issued a statement condemning Burke's behavior and saying the settlement would help provide for Shiva Rai's future needs.

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James Anderson can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jandersonap

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