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Polk school bus attendant abused special needs students, deputies say

A Polk County school bus attendant was arrested Thursday on charges that she abused six special needs students — including three children.

Juanita Tappin, 43, of Lakeland, faces three counts of child abuse and three counts of abusing a disabled adult. The Polk County School District placed her on administrative leave after her arrest.

The abuse was "intentional, malicious, and unprovoked," according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Tappin is accused of snapping some of the students with rubber bands, leaving welts on one of the child's faces, while also punching others. She told investigators she was acting in a "playful manner," deputies say.

Most of the students are non-verbal and unable to report or reveal the abuse, according to the Sheriff's Office. Some were also strapped into their seats with harnesses, rendering them unable to avoid Tappin during the alleged incidents.

The investigation began after a special needs child reported to school staff that Tappin struck her while en route to the Doris A. Sanders Learning Center in Lakeland, deputies say. A school nurse who examined the student found two red welts on the girl's face.

After interviewing the girl and observing video from inside the bus, detectives said they determined Tappin snapped her with a rubber band 11 times in the face and neck. Video evidence also shows Tappin abusing other students with a rubber band and striking them with a hard plastic seatbelt cutter tool, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Tappin, of Lakeland, was booked into the Polk County jail, where she remained held Friday in lieu of $6,000 bail.

"This suspect will be held accountable for her reprehensible abuse against the most vulnerable of victims," Polk Sheriff Grady Judd said in a statement. "In the video, the innocent children can be seen cowering in fear. She should never have access to children again."

Tappin was hired in January 2014 and has not previously been disciplined. Her annual salary is $13,856.

Contact Carl Lisciandrello at Follow @carlmarks_Times