Experts are providing advice for concerned parents on how to protect their children, in the wake of alarming allegations a First Student school bus driver threatened and stalked an 8-year-old boy attending Greenland Central School.
As the case moves forward against 39-year-old Michael Chick, of Eliot, Maine, Homeland Security has established a hotline for parents to call if they have information relevant to the case. Jane Young, U.S. attorney for New Hampshire, said the investigation is ongoing, and investigators are looking to see if the Greenland boy is the only student allegedly threatened by Chick.
Chick faces federal interstate stalking charges. Authorities allege he gave the boy TracFones with instructions to take inappropriate photographs of himself, placed GPS tracking devices on his parents' vehicles to track if they went to police, made multiple visits to the family's home, and threatened the boy a group of criminals would kill his family, kidnap him and torture him if he did not comply with their demands. When Greenland police investigated, they found the trackers still active on the boy's parents' car, according to authorities.
Previous story:New Hampshire school bus driver charged with threatening, stalking 8-year-old and family
First Student, which employed Chick, has contracts providing school bus service for districts in communities across the Seacoast and the country. Questions have been raised by parents since the allegations came to light, including why Chick was simply transferred to another route when the boy's parents first raised concerns.
Chick is scheduled to appear in U.S. District court Aug. 18 in Concord for a hearing to determine if he should be released on bail pending trial.
Parents can teach children to recognize grooming, experts say
Haven NH, based in Portsmouth, works to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking and to support and empower women, men, youth and families to heal from abuse and rebuild their lives. Educating children and parents is a key part of their mission.
Sarah Shanahan, education and training director at Haven, said it is important for parents to understand grooming behavior and how quickly it can escalate.
Shanahan said grooming is defined as manipulative behaviors an abuser uses to gain access to a victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse and to reduce the risk of being caught.
"These behaviors are hard to spot because they are effective at attracting and gaining trust and access to a child," Shanahan said. "A lot of abuse goes under the radar for that reason. Behaviors that are manipulative and designed to gain a child's trust or gain their silence or their compliance."
In Chick's case, authorities allege he used threats the 8-year-old boy and his parents would be hurt by a gang if the boy told his parents or other adults about what he was doing, such as asking him for inappropriate photos of himself. This ploy is a tactic designed to keep a child silent.
Haven advocates say teaching kids about body autonomy and boundaries when they are young helps them learn to recognize when they are put in situations where an adult is pushing those boundaries.
"Believe kids when they come forward or tell you something feels wrong, regardless of your relationship or own trust with that person," Shanahan said.
Citing national statistics, Shanahan said in 96% of abuse cases, children are hurt by someone they know or trust. In many cases, the abusers have easy access to children through family or a job in which they are a trusted adult.
Erica Skoglund, Haven education manager, visits schools to help educate students about personal body safety and boundaries. With elementary-age students she uses puppets to engage children in the lessons.
"Growing up we were taught about stranger danger, that we have to look out for someone we don't know that will snatch you from a van, but with grooming it's the opposite," Skoglund said. "In a lot of cases, it's someone who has gained trust by becoming a friend, has access to the child, gives gifts and shows a lot of affection and interest in what the child says or does, urges children to keep secrets and when they do that behavior escalates."
Skoglund said that is why teaching kids to know their boundaries, understand consent, and trust their instincts is important.
"Teaching them about personal body safety and what to do when that is violated, builds their expectations about privacy and consent," Skoglund said. "Normalize these conversations."
Haven advocates said parents should be aware of the fear, guilt and manipulation that can occur when children are abused by those they trust. As parents try to talk to their children following an incident like this, Haven suggests being open, honest, understanding and supportive.
How are school bus drivers screened?
According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, Chick's employment as a bus driver was handled by the district and included a comprehensive background check that met the requirements.
"Clearly, the New Hampshire Department of Education finds these allegations alarming. We will continue to work with all of our partners to ensure student safety in all facets of the school setting," a prepared statement from the department says.
A law passed in the 2020-21 legislative session requires the New Hampshire Department of Education to conduct criminal history records checks for school bus drivers and transportation monitors.
First Student spokesperson Jay Brock said the company follows guidelines set by the Department of Transportation and individual states when completing background checks, which includes checks and verifications completed during the hiring process and again throughout a driver's employment.
"At First Student, there is nothing more important than providing safe and reliable transportation to our student passengers," Brock said. "First Student has a robust background check program. Every driver we hire is put through multiple background checks before they are allowed to operate a school bus."
Brock said those searches include National Sex Offender Registry, Social Security number verification, local and national criminal records, motor vehicle records, a comprehensive drug screen, plus physical and compliance verifications.
According to court documents, Chick had never previously been charged with a serious crime in New Hampshire prior to the allegations in Greenland and a recent restraining order against him, which may or may not be related.
Steve Zadravec, superintendent of SAU 50, which oversees schools in Greenland, New Castle, Newington and Rye, told Seacoastonline previously the district is cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office and local law enforcement.
"This driver drove routes in both Greenland and Rye. This individual is no longer a bus driver for First Student," Zadravec said in a statement on Tuesday. "This charge is deeply concerning, and we will continue to work with the Police Departments and our bus company on steps to ensure the safety of our students. This will include a thorough review of all practices, policies, and protocols to ensure student safety."
Seacoastonline reached out to the district for more specifics on contract details, protocol in how allegations of misconduct are handled and how much control the district has in hiring and discipline of drivers, but did not receive an immediate response.
Questions remain about why Chick was reassigned to a new bus route and the depth of the investigation into him by the district and bus company after concerns were first raised by the boy's parents.
Details of how Chick allegedly told boy he and his family would be hurt
The case has been investigated by the Greenland Police Department, the Eliot, Maine Police Department, the New Hampshire Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations.
Young has said it is unclear if there are more victims, and if other adults were involved in the alleged exploitation. Homeland Security said it could not release any additional information on potential leads or number of calls to the hotline.
During a search of Chick's car, investigators said they located a TracFone, a digital camera, duct tape, rubber gloves, sweet (candy) liquor, candy, children's clothing (including underwear), children's toys, a magnetic GPS vehicle tracker along with his cell phone. Similar items were found in his room where he lived. At Chick's residence, surveillance cameras, TracFones, large plastic bags of children's underwear, and other evidence was found, authorities allege.
According to court documents, the parents of the boy "were very concerned for their son's safety as well as their own, verbalizing that they were afraid that Chick would come to their home and kidnap their son."
Authorities found paper notes and text messages between the boy and Chick, where Chick allegedly threatened the boy and his family for hesitating to follow his instructions.
In video footage from inside the bus, authorities say, Chick can be heard saying things like "I'm not going to sell your pictures," and "Remember our deal? The reason they haven't gone to that (inaudible) is I've been paying $1,000 a week (inaudible) hold them off while I try to figure out what I gotta do." Authorities believe Chick was referencing a gang of criminals he allegedly had previously told the boy would hurt him and his family if he didn't comply with his demands for photos.
Other threats caught on the footage include specifics on where the boy and his family were at specific dates and times, stating the boy was being watched by bad men and Chick was "doing everything" he could to stop them from "doing bad things."
A series of notebook-lined paper containing handwritten instructions on keeping a secret - specifically from parents, teachers, and police officers in order for his family not to be killed - was found in his belongings, too, authorities allege. Other notes to the boy included things like "You saved yourself. Would have taken you away on Friday," instructions on taking inappropriate selfies and what to wear in them, and how to hide the TracFone in a lunchbox after the photos were taken.
What do you do if you suspect misconduct against a child?
State law requires any person who suspects that a child under age 18 has been abused or neglected must report that suspicion immediately to New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth and Families.
Experts also suggest calling local law enforcement. If someone has questions or needs support, they can call their local crisis center to be talked through the situation and how to report it. Haven has a crisis center locally in Portsmouth.
If abuse happens online, the state Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has an active branch in Portsmouth that can help, too. Detective Lt. Eric Kinsman of Portsmouth is commander of the task force and can be reached at 603-610-7519 or email@example.com.
The hotline to report any additional incidents involving Chick is 603-722-1751.
To report child abuse or neglect to the state DCYF, call 603-271-6562.
If you need help
Haven's 24-hour confidential support line is 603-994-7233. Text for support Monday through Friday 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. at the same number. Find information at havennh.org.
The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence 24-hour hotline 866-644-3574.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: NH bus driver stalking, threats case How predators are grooming kids