Monica Burke, a former employee of the St. Vrain Valley School District, was sentenced on Friday, August 25, to twenty months in prison for kicking, punching, verbally abusing and spraying Lysol in the face of a twenty-year-old student with severe autism.
The abuse took place over several months in 2016 while Burke was working as an assistant busing special-needs students to a school in Denver, and came to light when the bus driver noticed and began to film the incidents with a surveillance camera.
The St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD) also announced that an almost $4 million settlement will be awarded to the family of Shiva Rai, the victim, which ends a months-long federal investigation into the school district's treatment of Rai.
The victim's family declined to speak with Westword through their attorney, who says that they were exhausted by the ordeal. "It's been a long journey, and we're happy to see the end of the tunnel," said Siddhartha Rathod of the civil-rights law firm Rathod and Mohamedbhai, who represented the Rai family in the case.
"The family is grateful that the school district is taking responsibility and enacted significant reforms to ensure that this doesn't happen to another individual," Rathod says. "That's the most important thing to a family; they want to make sure that no one else has to live through a nightmare."
Rai is severely autistic and has very low communication skills, rendering him unable to tell his family about the physical and emotional abuse he faced every day for months when he boarded the SVVSD bus to a Denver school for autistic students.
According to an affidavit for Burke's arrest warrant, Rai's family was confused and troubled when his physical health severely declined for months after Burke began assisting students on the bus, including losing weight, wetting the bed and struggling to sleep through the night. But he also developed rashes on his face and mouth, his eyes appeared red and watery, and he developed a severe cough that required medical treatment. Shiva's mother and caretaker, Kamala Rai, thought that he was developing an allergic reaction.
But on the bus, Burke was spraying Shiva directly in the face with Lysol, calling him "disgusting" and insulting him for his body odor, and warning him against putting his hands up to defend himself.
In the affidavit, Boulder County Detective Mark Cooper noted that Kamala Rai had spoken on the phone with Burke, who came off as very rude. That interaction with Burke made Kamala "afraid for Shiva," and "this was one of the reasons she made sure Shiva smelled as good as he could and was dressed as cleanly as possible before getting on the bus."
Burke is shown in a video taken on August 17, 2016, retrieving her Lysol bottle and yelling "Jesus!" before spraying Shiva in the face. As the affidavit reads:
"Shiva held his hands up. Monica [Burke] continues to spray Shiva in his face and down the front of his body then up to his face again. Monica states 'Do not do that again.' Monica turned and walked back to a window directly behind Shiva. As she walked past him, she struck him with the aerosol can on his right arm. She slid the window down then, as she walks past Shiva to her seat, stated, 'Don't touch this again' as she holds the aerosol can up to him."
Shiva's face became filled with rashes that peeled and bled. According to the affidavit, Shiva tried to tell his mother what Burke has doing at dinner on August 23, and began tapping his fist on his chin and sticking his fingers in his ears.
In addition to routinely spraying Shiva in the face with Lysol, Burke is shown in the videos punching him and kicking him over a ten-day period.
Burke was investigated by the Longmont Police Department, Boulder Police Department and later the Boulder County District Attorney's Office after a school employee told SVVSD Director of Transportation Randall McKie that he had witnessed Burke hit Shiva. Burke was convicted of 44 counts of crimes against an at-risk adult and pleaded guilty to second-degree assault of an at-risk person in July. She was sentenced to twenty months in prison, 360 hours of community service and five years of probation.
The Rai family later filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which investigated the school district and alleged that Shiva had been discriminated against on the basis of his race, national origin and disability. The school district decided to settle for nearly $4 million with the family before the investigated was completed.
Rathod says that the family is grateful to the school district for taking the right actions, which included firing Burke and establishing discrimination training for its teachers and employees. SVVSD covers parts of Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer and Weld counties and serves about 32,000 students.
In a written statement, SVVSD offered "sincere apologies" and said: "Since learning of the abuse, the School District and the Rai family have been engaged in positive and proactive communication and were able to reach a resolution that supports the Rai family in providing for the future care of Shiva Rai."
In its statement, SVVSD added that "the actions of Ms. Burke are not indicative of the incredible staff that make the District an exceptional educational institution. As our organization reflects on this incident, we will continue to dedicate ourselves to the safety and well-being of all of our students."
Rathod says that the case draws attention to the wider abuse that individuals on the autism spectrum face every day. On August 11, Westword reported that a Douglas County deputy district attorney compared Logan Thompson, a child with autism, to Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, after Thompson says he retaliated against a bully with a slap. Lanza killed six teachers and twenty children in 2012.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.