Mother seeks answers from First Student

A series of missteps left 5-year-old Taytem Bowers alone for an hour in the heavy fall rain the afternoon of Oct. 15. She stood because it was too wet to sit down, crying, at her school bus stop at a cul-de-sac on Sherri Court and 19th Street in West Linn — fearful she had been forgotten.

And she had been forgotten.

The family friend who was supposed to pick her up that day forgot, and the bus service company, First Student, failed to follow its rules and regulations related to safety for young children at bus stops.

Bowers stood in place because her mother, Jessica Johnson, told her never to cross the busy road and walk the quarter of a mile home down 19th Street by herself.

“I always told her to stay put if something happens, don’t leave,” Johnson said. “She stood in the rain — it was a horrible day — for an hour before a neighbor saw her out there and called the school, who then reported it.”

Irene Whittaker, transportation manager with First Student, said nearby neighbors saw the little girl standing alone on the street corner. The neighbors brought the girl into their home and then called Willamette Primary School, where the girl attends kindergarten in Mary-Beth Luhnow’s class. School secretary Bo Hansen left immediately to pick up the child, but by that time the family friend had already taken the little girl home.

Johnson said she received a phone call from Willamette Primary School around 3:20 p.m. stating that her daughter had been forgotten at the bus stop, where children are typically dropped off after school around 2:15 p.m.

“My daughter is 5 years old. They have protocols in place; they are supposed to check the bus tags,” Johnson said, referring to the tag her child wears on her backpack that states her age, contact information and home address. “I don’t understand how you could leave a 5-year-old out there in the rain and not look to see if someone is there.

“What baffles me about the situation is there are six to seven other kids that get dropped off at that stop and not one person asked her, ‘Hey, do you have someone coming?’ It took an hour to notice her standing there.”

Whittaker said the standard protocols put in place for this type of situation were not followed because of atypical circumstances.

“I couldn’t apologize enough to the mother,” Whittaker said. “This is not something that is ever supposed to happen. It’s a very unusual circumstance.”

Whittaker said the regular bus driver for bus route No. 32 was delayed that day on another trip, and a substitute driver was quickly arranged but nonetheless late to pick up the students at Willamette Primary.

Whittaker said the driver has driven for the school district since 2007, has a good driving record and was well aware of the standard rules and procedures.

On a normal day, kindergarten students such as Bowers would be escorted on the bus first by the kindergarten teacher and seated at the front of the bus in assigned seats so the bus driver can identify the younger students on the route.

Willamette Primary School Principal David Pryor said he and the student counselor waited with Luhnow’s kindergarten class and got the students on the bus. Pryor said school policy is to ensure that younger students sit at the front of the bus and to his knowledge Bowers was seated at the front of the bus.

Hansen, who declined to comment for this story, received the phone call from the concerned neighbor. Pryor said the name and contact information of the neighbors who called in the incident were not recorded. Pryor said he was in meetings until late in the evening that day and called Johnson the next morning.

“I called to make sure I understood the whole story and to see if there was anything we could have done differently,” he said. “The incident raises our awareness, and I’m pretty proud that we followed our procedures. She had a tag on and got on the right bus. I feel like we did everything right.”

Pryor said the school takes the situation very seriously and will continue to follow the school district’s safety practices and procedures.

According to procedures, if a kindergartner is not met by an adult — even at a large bus stop such as at an apartment or cul-de-sac — the child is to be taken back to school, where administrators will reach out to emergency contacts. Whittaker said this policy is used throughout the entire West Linn-Wilsonville School District unless the parent has made prior arrangements.

But because the bus was late, and dropped off the children at about 2:35 p.m. instead of 2:15 p.m., Whittaker said the substitute driver was not aware that Bowers was a kindergarten student.

“He didn’t even realize she was a kindergartner; he should have,” Whittaker said. “He didn’t even know for sure who she was because they all got on the bus at the same time. We really need to be extra diligent no matter how rushed we are.”

Whittaker said the bus driver dropped off about 10 to 15 children at the bus stop where Bowers was left alone.

“If we have a large bus stop, it’s extremely difficult to tell which parents are waiting for who,” she added.

First Student investigated the incident. Whittaker said the driver was suspended and has received additional training. She declined to disclose how long the driver would be suspended, and she said the driver was upset with himself because he was rushed and apologized for the incident. Whittaker said all First Student employees will review safety procedures during a meeting this week.

“If the guidelines aren’t followed, we have steps in place to take care of problems, and that has occurred,” she said, noting that First Student hopes to learn from this incident to ensure it will not happen again.

“I don’t think in any way this had anything to do with the school district. We take responsibility for not having someone there for that little girl,” she said.

The school district administration and Whittaker met last week to discuss the situation, and to review and reinforce safety procedures so this type of situation does not happen again, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Ludwig said in an email. The school district will not take any additional personnel actions.

“First Student personnel issues are handled through their agency and have been made by them in regard to this situation,” she said.

Ludwig said, according to district policy, school staff members identify the kindergarten students to every bus driver at the beginning of the school year and when they get on the bus. Bus drivers have a list of kindergarten students, learn their names and who they are and watch for their safe return to an adult at each bus stop. She reiterated that kindergarten students are first to board the bus and placed in the front set of seats by their teachers as an additional safety and identification procedure.

“Each driver is trained in these procedures and (reviews) them on a regular basis,” she said. “Unfortunately, a critical and regrettable error was made on the part of a substitute bus driver to omit one of the safety procedures. First Student is working swiftly and diligently to make sure this type of error does not happen again. Neither the district nor First Student ever want any kindergartner left unattended.”

Johnson said suspension of the driver is not a severe enough measure given what could have happened to her 5-year-old.

“I don’t feel that he did his job at all,” she said. “Of all the things that could have happened to her. ... He is not a new bus driver; he knew his job. The fact is, he didn’t pay close enough attention.”

Johnson called the police the next day and filed an incident report to make a record, so if the situation happens again, she can take further action.

Brad Moyle, public information officer with the West Linn Police Department, said police aren’t typically notified of such incidents — rather schools and bus companies are — and this is the first incident of this nature that has been reported to the police department. Regardless, he encouraged families to discuss and develop an after-school safety plan.

Johnson said she no longer trusts the bus company and is refusing to put her daughter back on the bus.

“I’m very angry with the whole situation,” she said. “You take someone’s word for something and you trust that nothing will happen, and when it does, it’s hard to protect yourself.”

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