By Derek Spellman
SENECA, Mo. — There is no shoulder on the stretch of Business Highway 60 that skirts the Seneca school district’s bus barn.
There is a grassy embankment, and that is where the 4-year-old son of Jeff and Robyn Gordon, sometime after 12:20 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, began what he thought might be the journey back home.
The Gordon boy recalled that he lived on “a big road,” Robyn Gordon said, but he could not remember which one.
His path would take him toward the intersection of Business 60 and state Highway 43.
Around the noon hour on that stretch of road, trucks often rumble past, interspersed with cars moving through an area where the speed limit is 35 mph. Neighboring properties include a gas station, a car wash, liquor stores and the local Milnot plant.
The Gordons’ son wandered a bit, Robyn Gordon said, before he grew weary and stopped to rest on a concrete island in the nearby Oasis Car Wash.
He then resumed his journey, begun after he fell asleep on the school bus en route to his Early Childhood program. Neither the bus driver nor an aide noticed that the boy had not gotten off the bus with the five other children.
The youngster was picked up at about 12:50 p.m. by a Seneca city employee who spotted him walking on the roadside — flushed, upset, but otherwise unharmed.
Even well-meaning drivers with years of experience can make a mistake, said Seneca school officials and a representative from a company that informally tracks incidents where children are accidentally left behind on buses. At least two such incidents have occurred at other area school districts in recent years, and school districts have responded in different ways and disciplined the drivers in different ways.
The Seneca scenario is not a rare one, said Wendy Priolo, sales manager for CRS Electronics Inc., a company that manufactures safety alarm systems for school buses.
Priolo said CRS knows of 25 cases nationwide so far this school year based on media reports. The number will likely climb to 100 by the time summer arrives.
Last year, the company tracked 100 cases.
Priolo said there are likely more cases that never get reported to the press.
“I am sure there are more,” said Priolo, who did not know of the incident in Seneca until contacted by the Globe. “If it doesn’t make the paper, I don’t see it.”
“You would think, ‘How could you leave a kid on a bus?’, but you know what, we are all human,” she said.
Just like other drivers sometimes think about how to keep pace with the errands they need to run and with their own children’s activities, the same happens to bus drivers, Priolo said.
Some drivers can be lazy and simply fail to do a final walk-through after they had parked their bus for the day or night, she said.
Others make a mistake, either by thinking they saw all of their passengers leave the bus or simply forgetting to check the bus on the one day when a child has fallen asleep.
“Some of the drivers could have worked for 25 years and have one bad day,” Priolo said.
Robyn Gordon said she could not understand how neither the driver nor an aide who also rode on the bus failed to notice that her son did not get off the bus with the other children.
Seneca Superintendent Rick Cook said the driver failed to perform the required walk-through of the bus before she left it at the barn at about 12:20 p.m.
The Gordon boy would awake sometime thereafter. He first made his way to the front of the bus and tried to honk the horn, although no one was around. He eventually got out of the bus through the back door, Robyn Gordon said, and then began walking along Business 60.
The bus driver was fired, Cook said, while the aide resigned. He declined to release the names, citing the incident as a personnel matter.
He also said the district has implemented additional measures, primarily a new policy that requires bus drivers to walk to the back of the bus and put up a sign stating that the bus has been walked through and no child is left onboard. The school’s transportation director then walks along the buses to ensure each one’s sign has been displayed, Cook said.
“We believe we have good drivers in this district,” he said. “We believe this was an isolated incident.”
Robyn Gordon contended the incident with her son is a symptom of larger deficiencies in the school’s student-tracking system.
Gordon said she wanted to publicly address at a school-board meeting what she thought were general problems in the district’s rider-tracking system as revealed by the incident with her son.
She contended that her concerns did not specifically relate to personnel and thus the meeting could not be closed.
Gordon said Superintendent Rick Cook would only allow her to address the board in closed session.
“He said, ‘It is a personnel issue,’” Gordon said. “I said, ‘No, it is a community issue.’”
Cook told the Globe in a phone interview that he still thought closed session was the proper venue.
Cook said the incident with Gordons’ son did not stem from a lack of procedure, but rather with the driver’s failure to follow the required policy.
Gordon said the “card system” still does not address the issue of how both the driver and the aide failed to notice her son’s absence when they were only a total of six children riding on the bus. School officials were not even aware that her son was missing until after they were alerted by Seneca police, she said.
“There have been no lengthy precautions taken, except for the (sign) system,” she said.
Robyn Gordon, who is also a teacher at the Neosho School District, said she asked Seneca school officials to consider installing an alarm system on the buses. Through this system, an alarm sounds after drivers turn the bus off, and it can only be silenced by opening and closing the bus back door.
The theory behind the alarm system is that it forces drivers to walk to the back of the bus —- and thereby past seats to make sure no child has been left behind.
Cook said Gordon’s claims still go back to the drivers following established procedures.
“That is why both the aide and the driver are not on that bus anymore,” Cook said.
“I don’t know anything about the alarm system,” Cook said, saying Gordon would have to address those issues with the district’s transportation director. “I just feel like we have a good system in place, and it is as effective as an alarm system.”
He would later say: “If these procedures are followed, this incident will not happen again.”
Policies at other schools
The Carl Junction School District also implemented new procedures after a bus driver left a 4-year-old girl on her bus for several hours in October 2005, said Superintendent Phil Cook, no relation to Rick Cook.
Like Robyn Gordon’s son, that child also was in the Early Childhood program. The girl's parent, brother and a pair of school officials found her later that day still inside the bus in the school bus barn. She, too, was unharmed.
In the Carl Junction case, the bus driver did not conduct a walk through of the bus.
“It was a bad mistake,” Phil Cook said of the incident. “We were fortunate.”
After the incident, bus drivers were required to walk through the bus and then post a sign stating that no children are left onboard. The sign is large and posted on the bus’ back door. School officials later walk along the buses to ensure each one has a sign mounted.
Phil Cook also said the district implemented an additional safeguard for the district’s Early Childhood program. The children are counted as they board the bus and counted as they exit.
“We did not take it lightly,” he said.
The Joplin School District also had a case where a child was accidentally left on the bus several years ago, said Doug Domer, assistant superintendent for support services.
Like Seneca and Carl Junction, Domer said Joplin relies on a sign system. Posting the sign is the responsibility of both the driver and any teacher’s aide.
But in recent years, Joplin also has been outfitting new buses with alarm systems suggested by Gordon. In time, the district’s entire fleet should have them.
The Webb City School District installed alarm systems on its buses more than two years ago, said Superintendent Ron Lankford.
“We think it is as good a system as any,” he said.
Lankford said he is aware of the sign system but warned that sometimes people can forget to remove the cards.
He said he has heard of some cases where buses were seen driving down the street full of children while displaying a sign stating the bus was unoccupied.
The alarm system, he argued, leaves no option for drivers except to walk to the back of the bus.
“A driver with the best intentions can think, ‘I saw every kid get off,’” Lankford said.
Penalties and vulnerabilities
Lawmakers in states like Wisconsin are pushing for legislation that would require all school buses to contain electronic alarm systems. The Wisconsin proposal stemmed from a June 2005 incident where a 2-year-old from Milwaukee died after she was left on a day-care bus where the temperature reached an estimated 128 degrees.
Some drivers could also face criminal charges if the child dies in such a case, said Priolo, of CRS Electronics.
In three of the local cases where children were left behind on school buses, but later were found unharmed, no criminal charges were ever brought, although the districts meted out different punishments.
Robyn Gordon called her son’s case an example of “criminal neglect” by school officials.
Seneca Police Chief Doyle Shields said that police investigated the incident but found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the driver or the aide.
Seneca Superintendent Rick Cook said the bus driver was dismissed because he expressly reviewed the walk-through policy with all the bus drivers before the start of this school year. Those drivers also received pamphlets recounting incidents at other schools.
“We haven’t taken it lightly from the first day,” he said.
In the Carl Junction case, Superintendent Phil Cook said the driver was suspended without pay for one semester.
The driver, he said, was not penalized more severely because she had driven for the school district for at least 25 years and amassed an unblemished record. She was barred from driving a route for the school's early-childhood education program.
Domer, the assistant superintendent for Joplin, said both the driver and the teacher’s aide were disciplined after Joplin’s incident. He said he could not reveal specifics because it was considered a personnel matter.
Priolo said that her company has never found a pattern among incidents where children are left behind on school buses.
She did say that it often happens with young children, particularly those in day care.
Robyn Gordon said her son has not ridden a bus to Seneca’s Early Childhood program since the incident.
“He is afraid to ride the bus,” she said.
By the numbers
The Joplin School District has been installing door-alarm systems on its new school buses in recent years. Less than a third of the fleet is now equipped with alarms. The school district usually tries to acquire between six to seven new buses each year. The district has a total fleet of between 70 and 75 vehicles.
By Derek Spellman
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