School bus monitor accused of twisting heads, arms of special needs students

Suspect facing 32 counts of child abuse

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LAKE COUNTY, Fla. – A Lake County school bus monitor is accused of abusing special needs students in instances that ranged from twisting their heads and arms to placing a shoe on one child's mouth, according to the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

Deputies said the investigation into James Charles Brunson, 26, began on May 17 when the Department of Children and Families notified them of the allegations against the Sorrento Elementary School bus monitor.

Sheriff's Office public information officer Lt. John Herrell said DCF became aware of the allegations when one of the victims came home with a minor injury.

A subpoena for the bus footage from the morning and afternoon routes on May 15 was granted and detectives said they saw Brunson abusing four children who were between 7 and 9 years old.

"Detectives were actually able to obtain with a subpoena the school bus video footage and once they reviewed that from the bus route that took place on May 15 they discovered this guy, James Brunson, had been very physically abusive to four kids on that bus, all of whom are special needs," Herrell said.

Brunson grabbed children by their faces, twisted their heads, twisted their arms, pushed them against the wall of the bus, placed a shoe over one victim's mouth and stretched one boy's leg over his head, according to a news release.

"He was just out of control. He was very rough with the kids. He didn't really strike any of them, but he would go up, grab their heads, shove their heads down," Herrell said. "I know he grabbed a couple of their heads, twisted them very forcefully to one side or the other. I know he grabbed the wrists of one young man and yanked them in opposite directions across his chest."

Deputies said video also showed Brunson forcefully pulling on the harnesses of the restraint seats.

[READ: Do school buses need seat belts?

At least one of the victims was crying in the video, the arrest affidavit said.

Herrell said the content deputies saw on the video was "disturbing."

"Any time a child is abused, that is heartbreaking enough but to think that these kids are either autistic or suffer from some other disability or special needs, it's very hard to wrap our minds around," Herrell said.

Herrell said authorities don't believe any abuse took place on any day other than May 15.

Parents of the abused children spoke to News 6 about the allegations and arrest.

Chris Mannuzza said he didn't learn about what happened until another parent told him. He said his second and third grade children were on the bus and was abused. Mannuzza said he watched the bus video.

"I'm not an emotional guy, but I teared up just a little bit because it's a grown man choking a child," Mannuzza said. "I don't like that. I wouldn't put my hands on my own kids, let alone someone else's."

Another mother whose son was a third grader at the time said the video was tough to watch.

"He took my child's arm and was choking my child with his own arm," the mother who didn't want to be identified said. "He used his harness to choke him, to choke my son on this bus."

Parents are concerned about who the school district hires to protect their students while on buses. Some parents said they are considering legal action.

"I rode the bus all my life going to school and you don't hear about this very often and it never crossed my mind, but now I'm worried," Mannuzza said.

Brunson was arrested Thursday on 32 counts of child abuse. News 6 spoke to his brother who said he had no comment about Brunson's arrest.

News 6 reached out to the Lake County school district to learn if Brunson is still employed and to request his employment history. A school spokesperson said they could not provide that information until Monday.                             

About the Authors:

Amanda Castro, a proud UCF alum, joined the News 6 team in November 2015 and was promoted to weekend morning anchor in April 2016. Go Knights!