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Autistic boy's mom 'devastated' over school bus slapping incident

NEW PORT RICHEY — First came the profanity — once, twice, three times from the back of the school bus carrying children with special needs.

"If I come back there, you're going to get it," a man's voice warned.

The swearing continued briefly, and bus aide James Lambert walked down the aisle, taking a seat beside the apparent offender.

The boy screamed. Then he uttered another profanity.

Lambert reached over the seat and smacked 10-year-old Jeffrey Lamb across the face hard enough to hear it on video, which the Pasco County School District released Monday.

"Say it again," the 57-year-old Lambert, who has been arrested on child abuse charges, told the boy. "Did you like it?"

After a short tussle, Lambert walked away, only to return 15 minutes later to slap Jeffrey again. Lambert sang a children's song as he strode back through the scream-filled bus: "Hush little Jeffrey, don't say a word . . ."

"It's utterly disgusting," said Pasco assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, whose office has recommended the School Board fire Lambert for his actions on June 3, the last day of classes.

Lori Lamb, the boy's mother, called the bus aide a coward for hitting her son.

"I don't care what he did," she said Monday of Jeffrey, who has autism. "He was strapped down in a harness. He wasn't even a threat to anybody, and he just kept smacking him in the face."

In 2012, in Tampa, a school bus driver was arrested after video showed her kicking an 8-year-old girl with autism down the steps of the bus, causing her to fracture her ankle. The driver later pleaded guilty to child abuse and was sentenced to probation.

Lamb said she had suspicions about Lambert, who has worked for the district since 1998, for some time. She had filed complaints against him in the past, for cursing at her son and also for taking toys out of the boy's pockets in front of her.

District officials said they had received other parent calls over time about Lambert, but nothing like the hitting. Lambert has received official reprimands in the past. In 2012 he was written up for failing to deal with student bullying on the bus in a timely manner. He was required to attend a seminar on how to better engage with students on the bus. In 2013, he was warned about inappropriate conduct with children, after he told students to "shut up."

On the day of the videotaped scene, though, Lamb didn't have an inkling of a problem. That day, she said, she climbed onto the bus to thank the bus driver and aide for their service.

"I feel like an idiot," Lamb said. "After I found out what happened, I was like, 'Oh my God.' He looked me in the face and gave me a smile. I am just so angry over this, and devastated."

Lamb learned of the incident from a friend whose son also rides the bus. Jeffrey is often nonverbal, she said, and did not tell her that anything occurred.

She called the School District. Gadd said he had transportation department staffers review the bus videos. There are three cameras on board to keep an eye on the children, who have disabilities.

Gadd said he wanted the district to move quickly on Lambert's employment, but learned that the Sheriff's Office had opened an investigation into the complaint. He said he called Sheriff Chris Nocco and asked him to expedite the case.

Nocco called back within hours on Friday to say an arrest had been made. According to the arrest report, Lambert denied to deputies that he had struck the boy and said the boy had hit himself. Investigators then told him they had the incident on video.

The district found the scenes "so horrendous" that officials wanted to allow Lamb to see them before releasing the material publicly, Gadd said. Melissa Musselwhite, district director of student support programs, visited Lamb on Sunday.

Lamb said she appreciated the response by the Sheriff's Office and the district. Still, she wondered whether this incident might have been prevented if someone had taken a closer look at the past complaints against Lambert.

"How many times and how many mothers had to complain before something was done?" Lamb said.

She also questioned the bus driver's role in the event. Certainly, the driver had to safely control the bus, she said.

"But I can't see where she didn't see and hear what happened," Lamb said.

District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the driver's actions are under review.

While awaiting further official action, Lamb said she planned to take her son, the youngest of six kids, to the doctor for a checkup and to ask about counseling.

"He's a little bit more harder to handle than normal," she said Monday above the din of Jeffrey's running and pounding and shouting.

Lamb sat for an interview in her living room later Monday to speak with Bay News 9 reporters about what happened. Her son played on a the sofa with a ball and quizzed a photographer on the parts of his camera. As the video rolled, Lamb asked the boy for a kiss. Jeffrey leaned in and she pecked him on the cheek.

Lambert did not return calls seeking comment.

Times staff writer Alex Orlando contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Autistic boy's mom 'devastated' over school bus slapping incident 06/09/14 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2014 10:57pm]
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