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ROCKVILLE — Parents questioned the safety of Montgomery County Public Schools buses after police charged a man with second-degree rape of a child on a MCPS bus which transported special-education students.
Police charged MCPS bus driver Etienne K. Kabongo with sexual abuse of a minor, second-degree rape and a third-degree sex offense for an incident that occurred on a school bus July 31. Police charged him in connection with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl while a school-bus attendant stepped off the bus to assist another student. He had been transporting students who receive special-education services.
Students know Kabongo as “Mr. Steve.”
Parent Katie Thomas said her daughter rode a bus driven by Kabongo.
“I knew her bus driver as ‘Mr. Steve’– there was a lot of panic – ‘Is this Mr. Steve my daughter’s bus driver?’” Thomas said.
Thomas wondered aloud about the possibility of learning her daughter’s bus driver’s name in the future.
“We aren’t given information…we have [the] bus route, time for pick up, time for drop off,” Thomas said.
Todd Watkins, director of MCPS department of transportation, said he could direct MCPS bus drivers during an upcoming meeting to introduce themselves to parents or guardians of children they transport to school.
“We can certainly talk about introducing [themselves] and that kind of issue. Some of those things seem to some of us like it would just be obvious that people would do that, but apparently, it’s not,” Watkins said, later adding, “We can certainly emphasize that.”
One mother said she believed parents received too little information about what had gone on with the incident for which police arrested Kabongo.
She said she wanted to receive information in writing, in addition to the robocall she received. Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman said a letter from Superintendent Jack Smith about the incident was available.
The co-chairpersons of MCPS’s special-education advisory committee and Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith made an exception to the committee scheduling meetings only during the school year to discuss parents’ concerns about the alleged abuse incident.
Since Smith was absent due to a death in the family, Zuckerman and other faculty in MCPS’s Central Office took questions from parents in the auditorium of the Carver Educational Services Center Wednesday.
“We are deeply troubled by this bus driver’s actions,” Zuckerman said Aug. 22. “I know you are angry and you [are] worried for your children.”
One woman asked if the cameras on school buses could be live-streamed to security officers, as they are currently only recorded.
“It’s probably happened for years – and it might even happen, God forbid, still,” the woman said about the abuse allegations.
“Mr. Kabongo was driving for 12 years, so this probably wasn’t his first,” another woman said.
She asked how MCPS could prevent something like the alleged incident from occurring, in which the attendant briefly exited the bus, leaving the driver without supervision.
Zuckerman said MCPS does not have enough employees to have security officers check footage of all bus cameras.
Zuckerman said two of the main purposes of cameras on the buses were as a visual deterrent, and for police use in case they need it for investigation.
He acknowledged the cameras had not been a deterrent in the alleged incident.
Four parents at the meeting said their child rode a bus route on which Kabongo drove students.
Philip Lynch, a director in MCPS’s department of special-education services, said staff are available in a call center to answer phone calls from parents about whether their child was on the bus that the charged bus driver had driven.
A parent of a student who aged out of the special-education program said he wished he and other parents of former special-education students could receive information about the investigation and arrest, as parents of current students had.
Parents of children who ride buses for students with special needs may contact the call center set up to answer questions about the routes and times Kabongo drove, said. The phone number is 240-740-3214.
Robin Ficker, Republican candidate who will challenge Council member Marc Elrich in the county executive race during the general election, questioned MCPS training of bus drivers.
“What continuing education do school bus drivers get?” Ficker asked. “He had to know there was a camera, and he still did it.”
Chris Cram of MCPS’s communications department said the co-chairpersons of the Special Education Advisory Committee chose to allow media to attend the meeting.