Driver, aide fired for leaving child on bus

PRESCOTT ­ After a terrifying hour in which the mother of a 5-year-old boy didn't know where he was, the boy is safe and a bus driver and a driver's aide have lost their jobs.

Stephanie McKinney, the mother of the boy whose name she prefers to keep private, said that around lunchtime on Tuesday, her son got on the special education bus that normally takes him from his preschool to Dexter Resource Center for speech therapy.

He lay down, fell asleep, and stayed on that bus until the driver parked it and locked it up in an open garage at the Prescott Unified School District's bus barn.

Supt. Kevin Kapp said that neither the bus driver nor the aide (all special education buses have one of each) noticed that the boy was on the bus ­ the driver never even stopped at Dexter to drop him off for speech therapy.

District policy requires drivers to check their buses for sleeping or hiding students before they lock them up for the night. In this case, Kapp said, that didn't happen.

McKinney said that her mother went to pick the boy up just after4 p.m. Tuesday, and he wasn't at preschool. She called McKinney, who asked her to call the police right away.

"Being a mom, I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, am I going to see my baby again,'" McKinney said, adding that she was hoping her son hadn't wandered off and then run into someone who decided to pick him up.

"It was true panic."

After several phone calls and visits to the various locations at which the boy was supposed to spend some time, his grandmother placed another call to the district's transportation department. Kapp said two employees checked the bus the boy was supposed to have ridden, and he was there, sleeping.

Kapp said the district's transportation director Jim Cowan has emphasized the "check the bus" rule with his crew. After he learned of the incident, Kapp said, Cowan called the driver and the aide, put them on paid administrative leave and requested a meeting Thursday morning. Both of them "admitted they blew it," Kapp said.

As law requires, Cowan reported the incident to the Department of Public Safety, which issues commercial drivers licenses and oversees school bus driver regulations, and that department revoked the driver's commercial drivers' license.

Although Governing Board policy allows the superintendent and direct supervisors to fire employees, it also requires board ratification. Kapp called the driver's and aide's not checking the back of the bus an "unacceptable" breaching of policy.

Governing board members will vote March 21 on whether to ratify Cowan's choice to fire the driver and aide.

Board President Joan Fleming said Thursday that in this particular case, she doesn't see any alternative to firing the two employees. However, in such cases, the board could direct district staff to find a different resolution.

Kapp said that all of the district's regular buses have a security system to prevent instances such as Tuesday's. If a bus driver, at the end of a driving cycle, does not press a button at the back of the bus (which requires a walk-through of the bus), an alarm will sound when the driver closes the doors.

The transportation department wasn't going to install similar systems in the special-education buses, "because we thought two people were enough," Kapp said, "but obviously it's not."

So transportation personnel have begun buying the systems for the special education buses, too, he said.

McKinney said she believes her son may have awakened at some point during the 45 minutes to an hour he was in the closed bus, because he's had nightmares every time he goes to sleep for naps or for the night. Kapp said the district will provide counseling for the boy if his parents believe that is necessary.

Contact the reporter at hdartt@prescottaz.com