Family of boy who died in bus fall sues city school system

The family of a 6-year-old special-needs student who died after he jumped from a moving school bus has filed an $80 million lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of the Baltimore school system and the contractor hired to transport him.

The boy's mother, Lisa Avery, filed the lawsuit this month, accusing the school system and the bus personnel of M.R. Hopkins Transportation Services Inc. of failing to ensure the safety of her emotionally disturbed son, Jeremy C. Jennings Jr., who had a history of impulsive behavior.

That behavior, the lawsuit says, included attempting to jump out of school buses — which he tried to do one week before his fatal fall Dec. 8, 2010. He died of head injuries two days later at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The lawsuit also alleges that the boy's Individualized Education Plan, which required him to have a safety vest on the bus, was not being implemented.

And on the day he fell,, no adult on the bus tried to stop him, the suit says. The family's attorney said the events leading to his fall were captured by a video camera on the bus.

"Jeremy's death was tragic and entirely avoidable," said William "Hassan" Murphy III, who is representing Avery. "The system that was designed to nurture and teach him, in fact, failed him repeatedly and ultimately caused his death."

Jeremy died Dec. 10, two days after he caused a commotion before jumping from the back of the school bus — staffed by a driver and two aides — into traffic on Pot Spring Road. The bus was hired by the city school system to transport him to his West Baltimore home from Villa Maria at St. Vincent's, the Catholic special-education school he attended in Baltimore County.

Villa Maria, owned by Catholic Charities of Baltimore, is also named as a defendant in the suit. A spokesperson for Catholic Charities said the organization does not comment on pending litigation. Baltimore City school officials also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The transportation company, which still contracts with the system and has for more than a decade, did not respond to phone calls for comment. The driver and two aides who work for the company and were on the bus when Jeremy jumped were also named as defendants. They did not respond to calls for comment.

The lawsuit cites eight counts at $10 million each, including negligence, negligent hiring, wrongful death, fraud, and negligent representation of the school system's safety policies and procedures.

The lawsuit outlines incident reports dating to May 2010 that showed Jeremy's behavioral problems on the bus. For example, the boy stood at the rear of the bus for the entire ride one day in October 2010 and unsuccessfully attempted to jump out the back door on Dec. 3.

The boy had similar problems at school, the suit said, citing records where school officials noted that he "had no impulse control" and had "run out of the school. ... [He] runs into the street and was once mildly hit by a car."

The lawsuit says that after the earlier string of incidents, the system did not perform any of the follow-up safety procedures that it outlines in its transportation manuals for parents and bus employees. Villa Maria responded by medicating the boy and revoking his privileges to quell his aggression, the lawsuit said.

"The school system, his aides, Villa Maria, and bus company each had multiple chances to take even the smallest steps within their duty and job description that could have prevented this tragedy, and none of them did," Murphy said.

According to the suit, the day Jeremy fell, he first attempted to open the front door of the bus. The bus driver swatted at him with his hat, while continuing to drive, the lawsuit alleges.

"Jeremy then turned around and walked right past [the aides], who simply watched him pass by, opened the emergency exit door at the rear of the bus and fell from a height of approximately 4-feet into oncoming traffic," the lawsuit says. "During this time, [the driver] continued operating the bus at about 30 miles per-hour."

City school officials told The Baltimore Sun shortly after the incident that the company's bus driver had broken protocol by not stopping the bus when Jeremy got up from his seat and that his license had been revoked. School officials also said that the two aides' certification had been suspended, pending an investigation.

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