UPDATED September 14 to add information about parents holding a protest on September 19.
Parents left a six-hour school board meeting Tuesday still unsatisfied with how Prosper Independent School District officials are responding to a months-long cover-up of a sex abuse scandal involving an elementary school bus driver who was arrested in early May.
The driver, Frank Paniagua, has since died, but Prosper ISD parents’ outrage over the district’s decision to sweep the scandal under the rug is alive and growing.
The scandal became public on August 25 when a family sued Prosper ISD for failing to protect their two daughters from more than 100 alleged instances of sexual assault over nine months.
Prosper ISD families are livid that they have yet to receive an apology or explanation from anyone in the district, and that the district has failed to make any known policy changes to protect their children.
An email parents received from Superintendent Holly Ferguson just after Tuesday’s meeting, which defended a principal who went along with hiding information, only angered them further.
Trustees called the special board meeting at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday in part to hire a law firm that will conduct an “independent investigation” of how the district handled the sex abuse allegations—something the board claimed during the August 29 board meeting they had already done.
Once news of the scandal broke, Prosper ISD administrators and elected school board trustees also claimed the district had taken “swift action,” which supposedly included communicating with parents.
Parents tell a different story.
Multiple moms say they were never told their children rode a bus with a driver accused of sexually assaulting two little girls for almost the entire 2021-2022 school year. They had to hear about the sex abuse allegations in news reports or from social media.
Parents Demand Accountability, Again
On Tuesday, dozens of parents and community members waited more than five hours for their chance to speak, while the board and Ferguson—a top target of the investigation—met in a closed session with attorneys. Others had to leave before the trustees finally emerged after 1:00 p.m.
Tuesday’s public comments were similar to those during the August 29 school board meeting, with parents calling out the district’s lack of transparency and demanding accountability.
“Why was a third-party investigation not initiated? Why did we not have somebody who was not associated with the district involved in the investigation?” asked Prosper ISD mom Aimee Hamilton. “Why did it take Garrett to come out and tell us that?”
Trustee Garrett Linker issued a statement on September 7 saying the “independent investigation” claimed by the board a week earlier was actually being conducted by the firm defending the district in the sex abuse lawsuit, a clear conflict of interest.
Hamilton was one of multiple parents who thanked Linker for telling them the truth.
“This could happen again,” she continued. “What’s the protocol now? Has it changed? Is it the same? Is anything changed? Will parents always be in the dark? Will we have to find out on social media? How are we going to find these things out in the future, because something has to have changed by now. … Or is everything going to continue to be swept under the rug?”
“The adults in this room have to protect our children,” Hamilton added. “What are we going to do differently next time?”
“The trust we have placed in the district to keep our kids safe is shattered,” said Emily Hildebrand, a mother of two Prosper ISD students. “It’s only going to be built back with transparency, which seems to be lacking.”
“Parents want to know what is being done to ensure that what happened to the victims of Frank Paniagua never happens again,” Hildebrand told the board.
She requested immediate action and suggested requiring two background-checked adults with kids at all times, adding bus monitors to ride along on bus routes, spot-checking bus surveillance video, preventing drivers from accessing the video software, and keeping parents informed.
Hildebrand also said the community should explore the process to recall school board members “if we feel their primary purpose is anything other than to keep our kids safe.”
Aileen Blachowski presented the board with a petition containing more than 750 signatures demanding a transparent and independent investigation, as well as suspension of Ferguson while the investigation is ongoing. The petition has gained more signatures since the meeting.
“It is your responsibility to manage the actions of the superintendent,” she said. “This district is not going to tolerate this kind of leadership. This is no leadership at all.”
Kandia Chastain, a mom of three dual-language students at Rucker Elementary, asked:
“Why have you [Ferguson] not been suspended? Why is [Rucker Elementary Principal] Ms. Balderas still working at my school?”
“I would like to have somebody held accountable,” she said. “I’m asking for policies in place. If my child was abused tomorrow, I want to know what are you going to do to protect him or her.”
Chastain also questioned whether parents’ concerns were ignored because they’re Hispanic. The kids who rode the accused molester’s bus all attended Rucker’s dual-language program for Spanish-speaking students.
“Trust is broken, especially with Ms. Balderas and Holly Ferguson,” said one of the moms Texas Scorecard spoke with last week whose child attended Rucker and rode Paniagua’s bus. “They protected their jobs, not the kids.”
Some parents called for stronger action.
“As you get to superintendent, the room for error in a situation like this is zero,” Prosper ISD parent Brian Lane told Ferguson. “You failed at that, and you don’t deserve to keep your job.”
To the board, he said, “You represent our opinions, and we are all calling for Holly to resign or be suspended or terminated. For you to sit up there and not do that is in direct defiance of the people that you represent.”
Following public comments, trustees voted to hire Thompson & Horton to “conduct an independent investigation into the district’s response to alleged inappropriate conduct by a former district employee.”
The “inappropriate conduct” refers to the months of continuous sexual abuse by Paniagua of two girls, who were 5 and 7 years old at the time, while in his bus on school property, as alleged in the lawsuit.
Trustees Jorden Dial and Bill Beavers voted against hiring an independent investigator.
Linker questioned whether the new firm would operate independently from the litigation attorneys, whose goal of proving in court that the district did nothing wrong is in conflict with an unbiased investigation aimed at uncovering the truth.
Board President Drew Wilborn told Linker that the new firm has “no conflict of interest” with the district, nor does the firm defending the district in the sex abuse litigation.
Wilborn also said the district didn’t “hire” the litigation attorneys, Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin, who he said were also conducting the investigation the board had previously referred to as “independent.”
“We pay the deductible,” said Trustee Kelly Cavender, suggesting the district’s liability insurance company selected the attorneys who will defend Prosper ISD in the sex abuse case.
“The decision was made prior to us getting involved,” added Linker.
The board also agreed to hire yet another set of lawyers to provide legal services to the board, Eichelbaum Wardell Hansen Powell & Muñoz.
Chief of Administrative Services Jeff Crownover had been providing legal advice to the board and administrators, but Ferguson said she wanted Crownover to spend more time on administrative work.
District taxpayers will be picking up the tab for all of the attorneys’ fees.
Ferguson Finally Responds to Families, But Only to Defend the District
As Tuesday’s board meeting adjourned, the crowd chanted, “Fire Holly!”
Shortly after the meeting ended, families whose children attend Rucker Elementary received an email from Ferguson defending Principal Balderas.
Parents were stunned that after all this time, the first notice they received about the situation was to defend the administration.
“I have a child at Rucker and I also received the same email,” said Erin Cox.
I am outraged this was the response to public comments from another Rucker parent at the meeting today. The cover-up to the missteps and mishandling of this continues. I am at a loss at what to do or say to leadership at Rucker.
“I want them to know I will advocate for every child, when so many who were entrusted to do so, failed,” she added.
Prosper ISD parents are holding a peaceful protest near Rucker Elementary on Monday, September 19, at 1:00 p.m. to yet again demand accountability for how administrators mishandled this latest sex abuse scandal, as well as policy changes to protect families in the future.
The next regular school board meeting is scheduled for Monday evening.