EXCLUSIVE: Video shows autistic girl left on bus

Posted at 6:56 PM, Jan 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-27 14:12:06-05

Team 10 obtained exclusive video, showing a bus driver ignoring a young autistic girl — and at one point appearing to take a short nap — on a San Diego Unified School District bus.

Zia Estrada was supposed to be dropped off at Kumeyaay Elementary School on the morning of May 22, 2014. Instead, she was left on the bus until it was brought back to the bus yard in Kearny Mesa several hours later.

The surveillance video obtained by Team 10 starts a little before 7 a.m., when Zia was boarding the school bus. Both her mom and bus driver help her onto the bus.

"She's sitting there patiently, waiting to get taken off the bus," said the family's attorney, Michael Jacobs.

Zia never got off the bus. At her stop, the driver instead helps other children.

He's identified in the family's lawsuit as Carlos LaVeaga.

At one point, you can hear him say to a teacher's aide: "I have everybody, but Zia."

It sounds like he says he has everybody on the bus, but Zia and another child.

"The bus driver actually straps her in the seatbelt," Jacobs said.

"So he knows she's there?" asked Team 10 investigator Melissa Mecija.

"There's no doubt he knows she's there and when he testified yesterday under oath that he didn't know she was there, that's not only just false. It defies any sense at all," Jacobs responded.

Jacobs walked Team 10 through other key points in the video.

He pointed out at 7:31 a.m., the driver isn't the only adult on the bus.

"It also shows a teacher's assistant walked up onto the bus and stood approximately two rows in front of where Zia was sitting. She should have seen Zia as well," Jacobs said.

You can also hear the driver indicate he is in a hurry.

"I gotta get going," he said. "I have a different route."

At 8:01 a.m., when Zia should be in class, the driver kicks up his feet, puts down a pillow, and appears to take a nap. Zia is still sitting three rows behind him.

"I'm very upset and it's not even my child. This is absurd. This is ridiculous," Jacobs said.

The nap lasts about 5 minutes. Eventually the driver makes his way back to the bus yard. It is now more than two hours since the family thought they were sending her off safely to school.

"Every time he makes a stop, he's supposed to get up and walk the length of the bus back and forth," Jacobs said.

It was close to 10 a.m. when another driver found Zia alone. Someone called police. In the initial police report, it states the driver found Zia crying in the "rear of the bus."

Zia's parents found out about what happened around 11 a.m. and their lawyer says the stories they are getting don't match up.

"The district told you and all the other news media and my clients back when this happened, oh no, we found her on the bus. She was sitting on the bus," Jacobs said.

Jacobs showed us a statement from the driver who found her, submitted as part of the family's lawsuit. It states Zia was at the "southwest corner of the parking lot parallel to the 805 freeway" and that she was found in front of the bus "crying."

After the incident, a district spokesperson said she was left unattended for about 30 minutes until another driver found her.

However, the lawyer for the Estrada family says the district is downplaying what happened. The family is suing San Diego Unified.

"I guess we can quibble on what the definition of unattended is, but when the driver said I didn't know she was there, well you didn't know she was there and she's unattended," Jacobs said.

The family hopes by sharing their story, something like this won't happen again.

"You made a mistake. Now you're compounding it and covering it and lying about it," Jacobs said. “Special needs children need an even higher duty of care."

Team 10 contacted LaVeaga's attorney, who said he could not comment on the lawsuit. 

A district spokesperson also said they could not comment, but confirmed that the driver no longer works for San Diego Unified.