Poudre School District officials failed to prevent a paraprofessional from physically and sexually abusing disabled children on a school bus, despite receiving parent complaints and knowing the man had pleaded guilty to child abuse, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of six Poudre School District students and their guardians against the district, Colorado Department of Education, Colorado State Board of Education, former paraprofessional Tyler Zanella and unnamed state or district employees alleges repeated abuse carried out by Zanella over the course of the 2022-2023 school year.
Zanella, 36, was arrested on suspicion of assault and child abuse in May.
The lawsuit also alleges Poudre School District officials tried to cover up the abuse by lying to a parent about how long school bus surveillance videos were retained and by withholding or “cherry-picking” which videos were turned over to law enforcement officers.
The children who were abused range from 6 to 11 years old and were all strapped into bus seats when the abuse occurred, according to the lawsuit.
The children who were most frequently abused were nonverbal and unable to tell anyone about their pain, and some of the children were restrained with a five-point harness when the abuse occurred.
According to the lawsuit, Zanella was hired in August 2022 as a paraprofessional for disabled students despite the district knowing he had pleaded guilty to child abuse in 2012 and had previous drunken driving arrests and convictions, including shortly before he started work.
Zanella also had a personal relationship with a school district employee who may have been involved in his hiring, according to the lawsuit.
Video footage shows Zanella hitting a child “on or near his head” with a clenched fist and his cell phone, ramming the child’s head into school bus windows and mocking the child, telling him to “hit me back.”
Other videos show Zanella hitting two other children on the head in a similar manner. On one occasion, video shows Zanella hitting a child on the head on both the morning and evening bus rides as well as mocking the boy and calling him derogatory names.
Video shows Zanella sexually abusing a child on at least one occasion, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleges there is likely more abuse documented on videos that the children’s parents and guardians have not been able to access.
Zanella would wait until a bus driver was looking away to abuse the children or would make it appear he was playing with them when another employee rode the bus, according to the lawsuit.
During the school year, a child’s guardian complained to a teacher that the child had bruises on their side and head and handprint marks. The teacher did not report the complaint or take it to her superiors, according to the lawsuit.
Another parent complaint in January or February prompted a school principal and another paraprofessional to ride the school bus for two weeks, but they did not review video footage from the school bus after the complaint was made.
The principal later told a parent that he did not investigate the complaints he received about Zanella beyond talking to Zanella, who said everything was fine.
“(The principal) admitted that he knew that the video footage existed as he supposedly made a note to himself to go back and look at the videos; however, he then admittedly failed to do so,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages on the basis of deprivation of civil rights, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by creating a hostile learning environment, assault, battery, false imprisonment, sexual harassment, and extreme and outrageous conduct causing severe emotional distress.
The Colorado Department of Education was unaware of the lawsuit, spokesperson Jeremy Meyer said in an email Monday, and could not comment because officials there had not had time to go through it.
Poudre School District did not respond to requests for comment.