On my way into a Boulder courtroom Friday morning, I expected to see a blank-eyed defendant slumped in her chair, indifferent to the crimes for which she was about to be sentenced.
I’d read the facts of Monica Burke’s case. How for several days – and maybe longer – late last summer, the school bus aide would terrorize a student on the two-hour ride from his home in Boulder County to his school in Denver, and then terrorize him again on the two-hour ride back. How she’d yell and demean him for his body odor. How she’d kick and hit him. And how she’d spray him with a can of Lysol as if he were a germ.
“Disgusting. You’re so disgusting,” she’d tell the student, Shiva Rai, to which he’d say nothing because he’s severely autistic, cannot speak, and was an easy target.
As it turned out, Burke, 52, was neither slumped nor checked out during her hour and twenty-minute sentencing hearing. She was, instead, wide-eyed and convincingly remorseful.
“I cannot apologize enough for what I’ve done,” she told the judge, Shiva’s family and the people who’d packed the courtroom, half-wanting to hate her. “I truly am not that terrible person I saw in that videotape.”
The video images – shot by a camera installed on a St. Vrain Valley School District school bus – showed a woman who, if not “terrible,” is capable of terrible, vicious things. A sampling of tapes over one week last August showed her fits of rage in response to Shiva’s feet dangling into the bus’s aisle, and to his body odor and flatulence. In one clip, during which the then-20-year-old apparently farted while boarding, she yelled, “Oh my god. Really, really? You have to do that the minute you get on the bus?” before appearing to kick him three times as the bus began to move. Other videos show her striking Shiva, kicking him, and spraying the aerosol disinfectant onto his body and face, and directly into his eyes.
In none of those or other videos of Burke’s abuse did Shiva – who wasn’t in court Friday morning – fight back or show aggression toward the woman being paid to take care of him. Police records say, “He appeared to defend himself as best he could by holding up his hands when she approached him or sprayed him.”
The videos provoked sobs from Shiva’s mother, Kamala Rai, and gasps throughout the courtroom where strangers were passing each other boxes of tissues. The footage won’t be made public until after Burke’s co-defendant, bus driver Bill Hall, is tried in November. Prosecutors don’t want it to taint the jury pool.
Burke accepted a plea deal agreed to by the Boulder District Attorney’s office and by Kamala Rai and her husband, Vhim Rai. The agreement left a sentencing window of between one and two years of jail time.
Boulder County District Court Judge Ingrid Bakke handed Burke a 20-month jail sentence – four months less than the maximum in recognition, she said, of her remorse.
“It is not very often to have someone like Mrs. Burke,” the judge said. “I do believe she is a good person who did something very bad.”
For all the pronouncements Friday – by Burke, her husband, one of her friends, and one of her three daughters – about her decency and willingness to accept responsibility, those qualities weren’t apparent in December 2016 when Burke told police she hadn’t remembered victimizing Shiva and had forgotten he had special needs.
The Rai family filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights against the St. Vrain Valley School District, Burke’s former employer, which was contracted to transport Shiva and other students to and from special needs schools in Denver. The district was cooperative throughout the investigation and agreed to a $3.85 million settlement that’s one of the largest – if not the single biggest – settlement involving a school district in Colorado. Of that, St. Vrain will pay the family $1.85 million, and its insurance company separately has agreed to pay $2 million.
“The family is burned out. It’s been a long process and they’re looking forward to healing and moving on with their lives,” says Siddhartha Rathod, the attorney who, along with his law partner, Qusair Mohamedbhai, represented the Rais in their civil claim.
In a statement Friday, the school district condemned Burke’s actions and apologized to the family. It has changed its policies by, among other steps, retaining school bus videotapes for several months rather than just days.
Courtroom G in Boulder District Court was filled Friday morning with relatives and friends of the Rais, devoted patrons of the family’s restaurant in Boulder, other parents of special needs children, and teachers and clinicians who’ve either worked with Shiva or with students like him.
Shiva, now 21, was born with severe intellectual disabilities and an inability to speak. In court, his father said that one of the happiest moments of his life came after years of his son’s social non-responsiveness when Shiva approached a baby on the Pearl Street Mall to touch her cheek. That gesture, he said, “confirmed our belief that he’s all there inside.”
For years, Shiva took the two-hour bus ride – with several stops at other schools – every day to Firefly Autism, a school in Denver where the staff came to admire his calmness and penchant for high-fiving and fist-bumping them. Kamala Rai said her son is “the gentlest person I’ve ever known” and spoke of his fondness for cartoons, noodles and samosas, and for putting his head on her lap.
“I think he still believes he’s a baby,” she said.
But, by the time of Burke’s attacks on him last year, Shiva had a man’s body. The Rais bathed their son twice a day and applied plenty of anti-perspirant. They also gave him probiotics to quell the gassiness he has had since early childhood. But those measure couldn’t keep him from getting sweaty in the August heat, nor from farting involuntarily on the bus.
Burke didn’t hesitate to express her displeasure to the Rais, and then take it out on Shiva. The viciousness of her reactions astounds the staff at his former school.
“In our field, odors and body functions are part of what we deal every day,” says Miranda Foley, clinical director at Firefly who worked closely with Shiva. “He of course doesn’t understand the social relevance of those things, which doesn’t make him deserving of being victimized.”
Shiva couldn’t go home and tell his parents that Burke was terrorizing him. So her brutality went undetected until a teacher at the Joshua School in Englewood noticed it when the bus stopped there on its way back to Boulder County. Had Burke’s beatings not been discovered by that teacher, the prosecutor said in court, “one wonders where it would have stopped.”
Shiva’s ordeal isn’t an isolated one. News stories surface almost monthly about autistic and other disabled children and adults being abused by their caregivers. An autistic teen in Southern California died after his aide left him unattended in a hot bus. Bus videos have shown an aide in Illinois hitting an autistic six-year-old girl, another in Mississippi striking a 7-year-old girl with autism, and another in Miami choking an autistic, 13-year-old boy.
While no one knows for sure, it’s estimated that children with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be physically or sexually abused as their typically-abled peers. ARC.org reports that one in three children with a disability are victims of some kind of maltreatment.
“It’s way too common and that’s really, really sad,” says Ken Winn, chief clinical officer at Firefly. “I have a hard time not uttering profanities when I hear excuses about patience, stress. People like Shiva don’t have a voice. They need to be protected.”
Firefly trains teachers, caregivers, service providers, families and anyone else concerned about the safety of people with special needs on how to limit risks by doing background checks and installing cameras and other monitoring devices, and how to recognize signs of abuse.
“A horrific case like this is an opportunity to raise awareness and educate the public at large to be vigilant,” says Firefly’s executive director, Jesse Ogas.
Still, even Firefly’s own vigilant staff didn’t see the signs of Shiva’s abuse until it was reported to them. Then they remembered that Shiva had once arrived at school wearing a surgical mask Burke put on his face.
“That should have been a red flag that things were going south with the school bus aide,” Winn says. “My staff is still kicking themselves, asking themselves, ‘What did I miss? Could I have done something earlier?’ That’s the job we have. We’re experts in human behavior. Why didn’t we pick that up?”
Kamala and Vhim Rai blame themselves for sending their son on a bus in the care of an aide with whom they didn’t feel completely comfortable. And they regret not having realized that when Shiva started hitting himself and bedwetting more than usual, those were signs he was being victimized. For someone of his intellectual and verbal limitations, there is no therapy to ease such trauma.
“The thought that I let him step onto the bus every morning fills me with so much guilt,” Kamala Rai told the judge.
“Was he questioning in his mind why his parents weren’t doing anything about it?” said her husband.
Judge Bakke told the Rais they have taken beautiful care of Shiva. Then, while turning her gaze to Burke, she said they needn’t blame themselves.
During the sentencing hearing, Burke’s defense lawyer teetered between accepting his client’s responsibility for her crimes and making excuses for her. He disputed an evaluator’s findings that Burke’s capacity for empathy is “somewhat questionable.” He attributed her actions to depression and low self-esteem stemming from Burke having been sexually assaulted at age 15. And he downplayed the lasting effect Lysol may have had on Shiva’s eyes, citing a study that showed the disinfectant causes only temporary eye irritation among rabbits.
At that, several people groaned in the courtroom. “Seriously?” a woman seated in front of me spoke out. “You’re comparing (Shiva) to a rabbit?”
But the rawness of Burke’s own apology to the Rais, her candor about what she called “unresolved issues” with anger and self-loathing, the way she took her lumps in the courtroom – despite embarrassment, despite shame – humanized her, at least somewhat, in the eyes of the judge and several observers. As Burke owned up to her flaws, even some of the most ardent disability rights defenders were wiping away tears. Not because what she did on that bus is forgivable. But because, several told me after Friday’s hearing, her short fuse and hard heart seemed, somehow, understandable. And because what she did to Shiva is and will forever be so sick and so sad.
“You know there’s a term for this kind of situation,” a sociology professor who’d come to observe murmured to me in the courtroom. “It’s called the banality of evil.”
Photos by Susan Greene