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Hillsborough school bus driver accused of abusing autistic student

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County school bus driver pushed an 8-year-old autistic student off a bus last month, causing the girl to fracture her ankle, police say.

The driver — Stephanie Wilkerson, 40, of near Tampa — was arrested Thursday and faces a charge of aggravated child abuse, a felony.

Police say that on the morning of Sept. 28, Wilkerson was transporting special-needs children to Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary School, near Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

The 8-year-old girl was trying to get off the bus, and Wilkerson told her to wait her turn.

The girl slapped and pushed the driver. Then, as the girl walked off the bus, she stopped on the middle stair. That's when, according to Tampa police, Wilkerson used her foot to push the girl off the bus.

The student — whom police have not named — fell to the ground and fractured her ankle.

The incident was recorded by a school bus surveillance camera.

On Oct. 2, someone from the school called the Florida Abuse Hotline, and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office child abuse detectives launched an investigation. Sheriff's deputies passed the case along to the Tampa Police Department, and officers arrested Wilkerson at the Hillsborough County Public Schools Transportation facility at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Late Thursday, she was held in jail without bail.

Wilkerson has been put on paid leave, according to school district spokesman Steve Hegarty, who added that the girl's actions do not excuse Wilkerson's alleged response.

"It doesn't matter what preceded it," Hegarty said. "That kind of behavior is not acceptable."

A woman who answered the door at Wilkerson's home Thursday evening declined to comment.

Wilkerson's only other arrest in Florida appears to have been in 1996, when she was charged with petty theft and obtaining property with a worthless check, according to state records. She pleaded no contest, entered a pretrial diversion program and the charges were dropped.

State driving records show that she has a valid license that allowed her to drive a school bus.

However, her license has been suspended four times since November 2009, according to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Three times, it was suspended because she did not pay a traffic fine. One time, it was suspended because of a lapse in insurance.

She has maintained a valid license since Sept. 20, 2011.

The school district said Wilkerson has not had any prior altercations with students or driving issues since she was hired in 2008.

"To be a bus driver, you need to have a good, safe driving record," Hegarty said. "It doesn't mean it has to be spotless."

When the district first heard about the allegations, it pulled her off her bus route and had her work elsewhere in the transportation department, away from children.

Thursday, district officials sent her a letter typically given to employees who have been arrested and placed her on paid leave.

A district employee cannot be put on unpaid leave until the Hillsborough County School Board votes on the issue. The next meeting where that could happen is Nov. 13.

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Hillsborough school bus driver accused of abusing autistic student 10/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 11:41pm]
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