TAMPA — It's early morning. A school bus is parked outside Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary School.
A video shows driver Stephanie Wilkerson, 41, guiding the children down the stairs. The first two leave, no problem.
But the third child pushes and shoves the driver. They are special-needs students, according to a police report, and the 8-year-old girl has autism.
Two minutes into the video, released Wednesday by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, you see the child hesitate on the stairs while a fourth child rocks back and forth behind Wilkerson, itching to leave.
Minute 2:16. Wilkerson thrusts her left foot forward. It makes contact with the child. She falls. She rolls around on the ground.
She does not stand up.
Wilkerson, who was hired by the Hillsborough County School District in 2008 and earned $14,500 a year, now faces a charge of aggravated child abuse, a first-degree felony. She pleaded not guilty. Police say the child broke her ankle in the fall.
The incident happened on Sept. 28, about a month before another family sued the district, saying their daughter went into respiratory distress because her wheelchair was not positioned properly on a bus. No one called 911 and the child died.
Since then the district has been working to improve safety training, especially when it comes to students with disabilities.
But none of that enters into the Wilkerson case, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty. "It's completely unacceptable," he said. "She was immediately suspended and her employment was terminated."
The girl's family has a lawyer, according to a district report. The schools' attorney contends the district is not responsible for what he calls an "intentional act." He cited a state law that says government is not liable if an employee acts "in bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton and willful disregard of human rights, safety, or property."
Like other districts, Hillsborough faces a shortage of school bus drivers. At last count there were 144 unfilled vacancies. Another 21 are on leaves of absence, and the rate of absenteeism is 20 percent.
The president of the union that represents them, Vicki Lawry, told the School Board recently that some drivers make double and triple runs to fill the gaps. In other cases, she said, "we're talking 65 to 77 students with one adult to control it all."
A far smaller number are shown on the video of Wilkerson's bus. After the girl falls to the ground, Wilkerson is shown following her off the bus, where several adults hover around her.
She remains on the ground until one of the adults carries her away about three minutes later.
Wilkerson leaves, then returns to the bus. She waits, drumming her fingers on the dashboard. Another adult brings her a beverage. They talk. Wilkerson becomes animated, gesturing to the other adult.
At minute 10:24, she pulls her bus away.
She was arrested on Oct.25.
Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]