Strange school bus ride raises questions

A bus ride gone wrong left kids and parents in tears Friday and raised questions about the safety and reliability of school transportation.

The students' wild ride began when one bus from Laidlaw Transportation arrived 20 minutes late for after-school pickup at Palisades Elementary School, according to Principal Carol Whitten.

The driver, who had been driving with Laidlaw for three days, attributed his lateness to being new to the job. School had let out early because of an early dismissal.

After leaving Palisades, the driver got lost on the route, according to Daryl Jefferson, manager of Laidlaw.

He headed toward West Linn, stopped at Hallinan Elementary School and then drove into downtown Lake Oswego, causing students on the bus to become frightened.

'The kids were trying to tell him he was doing it wrong and according to another mother he told them to 'Sit down and shut up,'' said parent Margaret Lemon. 'They had been riding that bus for years. They knew the route.'

When Laidlaw dispatchers got word that the driver was lost, they sent another bus to meet and help guide the driver back to his route. Students weren't dropped off at their designated stops until nearly an hour after the bus left the school.

One passenger was terrified and ran off the bus in tears, saying he would never ride a bus again, Lemon said. Whitten learned of the situation from shaken parents as students were being dropped off.

'I understand this is an alarming situation for students and parents, and is not acceptable,' Whitten wrote in an e-mail to parents.

'When you have young kids and they rely on the bus and the responsibility of the bus driver, we have to put faith in the company and the driver. When something like this happens, it was alarming, Whitten said.'

Jefferson is unsure why the driver got lost in the first place. Drivers are required to go through hours of extensive training and testing and drive with a veteran driver for at least three days before they begin driving alone.

'We thought he knew the route,' Jefferson said.

'How this could happen, I don't know,' he said. 'Our policy is if you're going to be more than 10 minutes late to a school, you call in.'

The driver never radioed in once, Jefferson said. When the company tried to contact him, he didn't answer the call.

The driver, who was not identified by Jefferson, is no longer with the company, he said. A veteran Palisades route driver - Bob Lorenz - took over Monday.

'They knew it was Bob and the kids cheered, I could hear it,' Whitten said. 'They were very relieved to see a bus driver they knew.'

Jefferson plans to set new rules to strengthen communication between drivers and Laidlaw. It was the first time such an incident has occurred since his company began working with the district four years ago, he said.

'We just need to continue to work with the driver(s) so (they) knows what (they're) doing,' Jefferson said. 'We thought that was the case here.'

Whitten hopes the school and Laidlaw can work together to re-build parents' and students' trust.

Lemon, whose daughters Maegan and Sarah Stewart were on the bus, won't let them ride again until she feels confident that the situation won't be repeated.

'It was scary. The potential for anything was there. We had no (way) of knowing what was going on with our kids,' Lemon said. 'There are things you do. You call, you stop and you ask. This person wasn't thinking that way … It wasn't rational.'

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