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Deputies: Veteran Polk County bus attendant ‘violently shook’ special need child’s head

By Melissa Gomez, Times Staff Writer
Brenda Nelson, 65, was arrested Friday after the Polk County Sheriff's Office conducted an investigation into a Wednesday incident after a witness filed a complaint. Video footage showed Nelson striking a special needs student in the head and shaking her head by her hair, authorities said. [Courtesy of the Polk County Sheriff's Office]

A Polk County school bus attendant is facing a child abuse charge after video showed she hit a special needs student in the head and "violently shook" her head back and forth, authorities said.

Brenda Nelson, 65, was charged Friday by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office after a witness filed a complaint over the Wednesday incident. The witness, who was not identified and not on the bus at the time, said that about 4 p.m. that day she saw an attendant strike a child on a bus that transports children with special needs from Doris Sanders Learning Center in Lakeland, according to an affidavit.

Video footage captured Nelson striking the child, who suffers from an epileptic condition and severe mobility restrictions, deputies said. Nelson was hired by the school district in May 1983. Her salary was about $18,400. According to the affidavit, there was no record of her being disciplined during her tenure.

When asked by deputies about the incident, Nelson said she did not remember committing the act.

"I must have just lost it. I don’t remember doing that. I would never hit one of those kids," she said.

Footage reviewed by detectives showed Nelson attempting to help another special needs child off the bus while the victim sat in her seat, strapped down by a harness designed to restrain her movements.

About 3:58 p.m., Nelson is seen in the video, which the sheriff’s office has not released, walking by the child and hitting her head.

"I’m gonna slap that tongue out of your mouth when I get up there," Nelson said, according to the affidavit.

A couple of minutes later, she’s seen walking behind the child, grabbing her by the hair and shaking her head violently from back and forth and to the side about four times. The child can be heard making squealing noises and looks pained, deputies said.

Nelson is then seen pulling something behind the child, who reaches for Nelson. The woman slapped the child’s hand twice, deputies said.

"Turn around," she said to the child, according to the affidavit. Nelson then told the bus driver to drop off the child first instead of following the regular route. For the rest of the trip, she’s seen sitting next to the child, and it appears that she is pushing the child further down in her seat to restrict her mobility, deputies said.

In an interview with deputies, Nelson said the child had been beating on the window and trying to get up out of her seat as she tried to help another student. She said the child misbehaves often and upsets the other children, but deputies said they did not see the child beating on the window or trying to get out of her seat while reviewing the footage.

Polk County school superintendent Jaqueline Byrd said in a statement that staff has begun Nelson’s termination process.

"This employee squandered the trust of the children and families in her care," Byrd said. "She does not embody the values of Polk County Public Schools, and I will not tolerate it."

Contact Melissa Gomez at [email protected] Follow @melissagomez004.