Altercation between Denver parent, bus driver emblematic of bigger issues, activists say

Denver police and school district officials are investigating an altercation between a black parent and a bus driver, apparently white, that community activists say is another example of district employees treating black students and parents harshly.

The conflict stemmed from an incident last week that started on a school bus carrying students home. The driver stopped the bus between regular stops, and he and a district bus aide refused to let off their passengers, who were mostly black middle school students, while a crowd of concerned parents gathered outside.

The driver ended up in a physical altercation with a parent whom video shows jumped onto the bus.

Although the district is still gathering facts, Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Mark Ferrandino said the situation should have been handled differently.

“This should have been able to have been de-escalated,” Ferrandino said. “Why and how that happened, I think we need to investigate and work to ensure that individuals who are on buses or in classes understand how to de-escalate in a culturally responsive way.”

The parent, 32-year-old Brandi Martin, was arrested on suspicion of third-degree assault on an at-risk adult because the bus driver is over 70 years old. She has not been charged, and police are still investigating.

The bus driver was not arrested. Both he and a district-employed aide who was on the bus are on administrative leave pending the outcome of the district’s investigation, Ferrandino said.

A video taken by another parent shows some of what happened. A police report fills in other details. The report says the bus driver pulled over between regular stops on his after-school route Wednesday from Denver Green School Northfield middle school because some students had become “unruly.”

Parents waiting at the usual bus stop got texts from their children relaying the location of the bus, and soon a crowd of parents anxious to collect their children gathered at the bus, which was stopped on the 2900 block of North Kearney Street.

The video shows two men in yellow safety vests that say “Denver Public Schools” standing in the open emergency exit of the bus. On the bus, students can be heard shouting, “Mom! Mom!” and “Let us go!” as agitated parents talked to the two men.

A few students got past the men before a woman from the crowd jumped onto the bus. One of the men appeared to grab the woman and shove her into a seat. The woman broke free and tried to climb further into the bus, but the man grabbed her by the arm and eventually by the hair. She broke free again and threw some punches before exiting the bus, clutching her head.

Martin has since retained an attorney. A GoFundMe page set up to benefit her says she jumped on the bus when she heard her daughter crying out for her.

The GoFundMe page says the bus driver and aide “were asked multiple times by the students’ parents to release their children.” When the driver and aide refused without explanation, “parents were worried as their children were screaming to get off.”

A message signed by Martin that was posted to the GoFundMe page Monday thanks those who have supported her. “I just want to say hold your babies tight, tell them you love them, be the mama bear you are because there’s nothing wrong with that,” the message says.

Community activists are pointing to the incident as another example of racial bias in Denver Public Schools. Activists are calling for the bus driver and aide to be fired.

“We’re looking at a systemic issue,” said Hasira “Soul” Ashemu, a community activist whose children were not involved in the incident. “Black and brown parenthood is being criminalized. … How many white mothers would have done that same thing to get access to their child?”

Jennifer Bacon, the school board member who represents northeast Denver, said her heart is with the families who endured the trauma of the chaotic event — especially since the district has committed to taking a “trauma-informed” approach to nurturing its students.

“You can hear in the video people crying,” Bacon said. “We need to be sure we live up to our commitment to be trauma-informed. That, one, we don’t trigger it. And if it occurs, we respond.

“I do think the families are owed an apology.”

Ferrandino said he understands the frustration of parents who were barred from their children on the bus. When a school bus pulls over at a location that is not a regular stop, Ferrandino said protocol calls for drivers to initiate a reunification process that involves asking students their names, checking parents’ IDs, and making sure students are released to the correct guardians.

But Ferrandino said this situation may have called for something different.

“While bus drivers try to follow the normal process, given how confrontational this was — and going through reunification was going to create more confrontation — a different approach may have been warranted,” he said. “This is not how we expect situations to be handled, and not how we want to make sure kids feel cared for in our transportation system.

“We will work to learn from this and improve from this.”

Kartal Jaquette, an administrator at Denver Green School Northfield, said the school responded quickly with an email to families Wednesday night and a meeting with affected students Thursday morning. The meeting was a chance for students to talk about how they felt.

The most common reaction, he said, was that students felt unsafe.

District leaders have acknowledged that institutional racism exists in the district, and the school board recently passed a resolution calling for the district to better serve black students, who are more likely to face harsh discipline and less likely to be reading at grade level.

Last year, a Denver kindergarten teacher made a 6-year-old black boy clean feces off the floor, even though the young child said it wasn’t his.

After a father went public with the story of his 7-year-old black son being handcuffed at school, the district released statistics showing that 45% of the students handcuffed by district safety officers in the past two years were black, even though black students comprise only 13% of the student population.

“This whole incident was just so unfortunate,” said Bacon, the school board member.

While she said she wants to reserve judgment and give the district space to complete its investigation, “I hope we don’t find this was an example of implicit bias, or this was an example of not doing our best at understanding how to de-escalate.

“We have to brace for if we find that,” she added. “We can’t run from it.”