A school bus driver — who is also a Des Moines City Council member and a former Superior Court judge — is facing an assault charge and likely termination after allegedly slapping a 6-year-old autistic boy across the face. The March 10 incident was captured on video.

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Elizabeth Lyshol’s 6-year-old autistic son needs structure, routine and usually a couple of days to prepare for new experiences.

So when Christian Lyshol, a first-grader in a special-needs class at McMicken Heights Elementary School in SeaTac, was unexpectedly put on a school bus last month instead of the van he’s accustomed to riding in, it was like he was being set up to fail, his mother said.

Christian became agitated and overstimulated during the ride, prompting a bus monitor to ask the driver of the bus to pull over, she said.

The driver — Jeanette Burrage, a Des Moines City Council member and a former Superior Court judge — slapped Christian across the face, according to Lyshol, who viewed a video of the March 10 incident at the offices of Highline School District Transportation, a unit within the district that transports students.

In footage from Highline School District Transportation, bus driver Jeanette Burrage, a former Des Moines City Council member and judge, confronts and allegedly slaps Christian Lyshol, a special-needs first-grader.

Burrage was placed on paid administrative leave on March 11.

On Monday, Burrage was charged in SeaTac Municipal Court with fourth-degree assault for allegedly striking Christian, court records show.

By Friday afternoon, the school district had initiated a process to terminate Burrage’s employment, said spokeswoman Catherine Carbone Rogers. A recommendation for termination will be brought to the school board for a vote, “so it’s not a done deal until that happens,” she said.

Carbone Rogers said Friday she wasn’t able to answer questions about the incident itself, but said the district has concluded its investigation.

“It is not acceptable — ever — for a staff member to strike a student. That’s the bottom line. It’s district policy; it’s state law,” she said.

Jeanette Burrage, former King County Superior Court judge working as a bus driver for the Highline School District has been accused of slapping a 6-year-old special-needs student.
Courtesy of Des Moines government page.  ( / Handout)
Jeanette Burrage, former King County Superior Court judge working as a bus driver for the Highline School District has been accused of slapping a 6-year-old special-needs student. Courtesy of Des Moines government page. ( / Handout)

Burrage declined to be interviewed Friday, referring questions to her attorney, Joe Breidenbach. Asked if she plans to run for re-election to the Des Moines City Council in the fall, Burrage responded: “Probably not now.”

Breidenbach also declined to answer questions.

“I’m trying really hard to forgive,” Lyshol said. “I do think there should be repercussions for your actions … and I feel that the decision that they made (to charge Burrage) is a fair one.”

Lyshol said her son is typically driven home in a van with two other special-needs students. The van driver and monitor are “very interactive” with the kids, singing songs, reading books and playing with stickers on the drive, she said.

“It’s a really happy time for them to get home,” said Lyshol, a nurse who lives with her husband, mother and two other children just south of Seattle and about 20 minutes from Christian’s school.

She later learned that on the morning of March 10, the bus company was extremely short-staffed. “They knew they were going to have a problem” getting kids home that afternoon, but no one from the school contacted her to tell her Christian and the two other kids would be coming home on a regular school bus.

Her mother, Dorothy Duncan, was waiting for Christian at his usual stop when she got a call that he would be about 20 minutes late, Lyshol said.

Five minutes later, Duncan got a second call informing her “that Christian had attacked the bus driver” and that he’d be brought home by a school security officer and a Burien police officer, Lyshol said.

Elizabeth Lyshol’s son Christian is autistic and usually rides home from school in a special van. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
Elizabeth Lyshol’s son Christian is autistic and usually rides home from school in a special van. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Christian was brought home in a patrol car, according to his mother.

When Christian got home, “we asked him what happened and he said, ‘I’m not supposed to be on the bus. I don’t like the bus,’ ” Lyshol recalled. “That was all we were getting out of him so we dropped it. We knew he’d fail in that situation, which is why he’s in the van in the first place.”

The next afternoon, an older girl who rides in the van with Christian told Duncan about the incident with the bus driver the day before — and said she had told her teacher that she’d seen Christian get slapped. Lyshol said the girl’s teacher notified the school principal, who then notified the bus company.

Lyshol called the district’s transportation unit and discovered that the police and Child Protective Services had also been notified of the allegation against Burrage, but no one from the school had contacted her or her husband, she said.

On Saturday, Carbone Rogers contacted The Seattle Times and said the district did contact Christian’s parents, citing a misunderstanding with a reporter about details she could discuss Friday. She also said bus drivers receive two days of training on transporting special-needs kids.

She said the allegation did come to light after the girl reported it to her teacher. After that, both the district’s transportation department and Christian’s school contacted Lyshol.

“The transportation director talked to mom as soon as the allegations were known by us,” Carbone Rogers said, adding the district would never contact CPS without also contacting a student’s parents.

Lyshol was told there was a video and that she could view it.

When a week went by with no further word, Lyshol said she hired an attorney who arranged for Christian’s parents and grandmother to see the footage.

Carbone Rogers said Lyshol was told she could view the video at any time, and as many times as she wanted, but that the district couldn’t release a copy to her.

Christian was clearly agitated in the video, she said. After the bus monitor asked Burrage for help because Christian’s behavior was escalating, Lyshol said Burrage got into Christian’s personal space and asked him if “he wanted to go home.”

Christian “raised his hand to swat at her,” said Lyshol. Lyshol couldn’t tell from the video “if he actually made contact with her (Burrage), but it did appear he was going to strike her.”

Lyshol then saw Burrage slap Christian across the face.

“He burst into tears and hid under the bus seat” while Burrage returned to the front of the bus to call security, said Lyshol. “He looked shocked and hurt.”

Burrage called a dispatcher, who suggested she call 911 since it would take 20 minutes for a school security official to arrive, Lyshol said. Burrage did so, telling a 911 operator that Christian had hit her — but made no mention that she’d struck a child, Lyshol said.

Burrage was a state legislator in the early 1980s and served on a select committee on child abuse, according to her online biography. She was a King County Superior Court judge for five years before losing her re-election bid in 2000. She also unsuccessfully campaigned for seats on the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

A conservative who championed individual rights over the rights of government, Burrage was criticized after telling two female attorneys to wear skirts to court in 1999, an action that earned her the nickname “the skirt judge,” according to Seattle Times news reports at the time. She later reversed her stance on a courtroom dress code.

Carbone Rogers said she doesn’t know whether Burrage was told that Christian is autistic.

“We followed protocol, we did everything we were supposed to do in this case,” Carbone Rogers said.

Lyshol could not be reached Saturday.

As for her son, Lyshol said Friday, “I think it’s been harder for me than it has been for him.”

“He was the victim but he was brought home and it was put to us that he was assaultive and out of hand,” she said. “When you have a kid who can’t speak up for himself, you put so much trust in the providers. When something like this happens, it makes you feel very unsettled.”