DRAPER — Parents of the children who were driven to school by a bus driver charged with sexually abusing a young girl on his route for months have issued a scathing open letter to the Canyons School District asking it to restore public trust.
The open letter sent Tuesday was written and signed by "The Dissatisfied Parents of the Draper Park Middle School Students with Special Needs Assigned to the Route of John Martin Carrell." The parents are calling for the Canyons School Board to hire an independent investigator to answer questions surrounding the employment of Carrell and the apparent decision by district officials not to inform police or parents in Draper connected to his bus routes.
Last week, Carrell, 61, was charged with 23 counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child for allegedly abusing a 5-year-old girl with special needs whom he drove to and from Altara Elementary School, 800 E. 11000 South. Carrell also drove special needs children to Draper Park Middle School, 13133 S. 1300 East.
But parents in Draper said between April 24, the day Sandy police were notified, and May 12, when the abuse was first reported by the media, neither they nor the Draper Police Department were notified by the district that Carrell was under investigation even though he had also driven their children to school.
"Over the past two weeks we have been shocked at the callous disregard by Canyons School District officials with respect to the welfare of our children. We believe that the school district has violated the public trust with its actions," the Draper parents wrote in their letter.
Just recently, it was discovered that Carrell also drove one student on a third route to Oak Hollow, according to the parents.
The parents also claim that even after the district was notified by the alleged victim's parents of the allegations on April 23, they "inexplicably" allowed Carrell to drive his route the next morning before he met with district officials and was at that time suspended.
Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook clarified Tuesday that the phone call to the district by the victim's family on April 23 was made after hours and it was handled immediately the next business day.
Carol, who asked that her last name not be used, has a 13-year-old daughter who rode Carrell's bus in Draper and is one of the co-signers of the letter. Her daughter has the mental capacity of a 5-year-old and cannot speak. If her daughter was being abused, she would not have been able to tell anyone, she said.
"It's sickening. I haven't been able to sleep or eat for a week just thinking about it," she said. "We may never know if she was abused."
Early last week, Draper police announced they had begun their own investigation into Carrell. At the time, there was no evidence of abuse, although police noted they were still early in the investigation.
Toomer-Cook said the district wanted to contact the people whom it felt it needed to alert while still trying to maintain the integrity of the police investigation.
"Our strategy has been to work with police so justice can be served. That's our strategy," she said. "We did not want to compromise an active police investigation. We received the report, we followed up on the report and we reported what we saw as potentially criminal and evidence to the corresponding police agency."
But Draper parents believe they, too, should have been notified.
"To focus just on Sandy is negligent," Carol said. "It seems like (the district is) more interested in their liability legally than they are about the kids' safety."
Carol and the other parents would like to meet with district officials to talk about policies. But as of Tuesday, the group members said they have been rejected three times in their requests for a meeting.
Toomer-Cook said the district has only rejected the offers to meet with the parents as a group, but welcomes meeting with anyone on a one-on-one basis.
"We actually have invited all of the parents, individually, to talk to us. If you have questions, come talk to us," she reiterated. "We have always said we will meet with them individually, and that is our stance."
Carol said she is disappointed.
"We believe that the district has a right to protect our kids. We know that bad people can get to our kids no matter where they are. But we don't feel like the district did everything they could have, everything they should have, that we thought they were doing, to protect our special needs children," she said.
The Canyons district does not require an aide to ride on the buses along with special needs children. But because of the type of needs her daughter has, Carol said a second adult was required to ride her bus. She said she has information that that didn't always happen.
Toomer-Cook said the district's records show otherwise.
"The fact is that all of our bus logs show for kids who had an (Individual Education Plan) specifying an aide, all of our logs show that our regular aide or a substitute aide was on the bus with them," she said. "We are happy to hear specific incidents so we can follow up."
Some parents believe that an aide should now ride all buses with special needs children at all times.
Carol also believes the district should actually check the video cameras that are installed in buses more often. Because if no one does an occasional audit or spot check of the video that is recorded, "then they're really not doing any good."
The fact that Carrell also drove a bus route to Draper Park Middle School was discovered by a school district employee whose child rode his bus, according to the letter. That parent contacted the school district and police on May 12. Since then, the parents claim the whistleblower has been reprimanded by the district and threatened with termination.
But Toomer-Cook said the district has no record of a whistleblower being disciplined.
"We don't have any evidence to say that there was that," she said.
The parents believe the Canyons School District engaged in a "deliberate strategy" to withhold information. Carol said just because Carrell was no longer driving in Draper and no parent had, at that point, filed a complaint, doesn't mean the district didn't have an obligation to notify parents on that route or Draper police.
"So he might have abused your children but he's no longer abusing them, therefore you don't care to report that to police? The Utah law is very clear, if you suspect child abuse you need to report it. And they did not report that to (Draper) police. That's horrendous to me," she said.
The parents also take issue with the district for telling the media that all district policies had been followed.
"We are offended nearly every time the public relations employees of the school district speak in the media about this matter. The school district should immediately stop asserting that it has acted properly in all respects. Rather, the school district should publicly apologize to parents and special needs children for its failures," they state in the letter.
Among the demands parents are making: a meeting with district administrators, a record of all of Carrell's bus routes dating back to when he was hired in 2009, that the whistleblower be restored to good standing, and that the school board hire an independent investigator to look at the facts surrounding the case.
Toomer-Cook said the district's strategy is to work with police closely. It is also always looking at ways they it can improve. She said school board members had just received the letter on Tuesday and haven't had time to study it closely, but have directed "staff" to look into it.
Contributing: Sandra Yi and Peter Samore