The Sachem School District is considering whether or not to raise the grade level transportation is allowed to drop off students at a bus stop without an adult present after a first-grade girl at Chippewa was left at an empty bus stop while her parents frantically searched for her.
It all started on Jan. 6, when Chrissy Hogan, a Holtsville resident with a son, 8 and daughter, 6, was expecting her children home from school when they met their father at the bus stop on the corner of Division Street and Honeysuckle Lane. Her son got off the bus; her daughter did not. When Hogan’s husband asked his son where his little sister was, he didn’t know, nor could he say with any certainty that she was on the bus. Chrissy Hogan called Chippewa to find out if she had gotten on the bus, but the school could only confirm she had gotten on line. Nobody saw her actually board.
Now frantic, Hogan called 911.
‘As everyone can imagine, the fear and sickness I felt was indescribable,’ Hogan wrote in a post on the Facebook group “Sachem Moms.” ‘My 8 year old son fell to the floor and began to cry as well when he heard me sobbing to the 911 dispatcher the description of my daughter and where she was last seen. It was the longest and most HORRIFIC 15 minutes of my life.’
While Hogan was on the phone with police, she looked out the window of her home office and noticed a little girl in familiar clothes walking down the street. She ran out of the house and scooped her daughter up.
As it turns out, the 6-year-old had been drawing pictures with her friend on the bus and missed her stop. According to Hogan, the 1st-grader alerted the driver, who went to one more stop, then headed back to her's. The bus stop was deserted at this point. According to Transportation Supervisor Stephen Shadbolt, the driver asked the little girl if she knew how to get home. She nodded yes, and the driver let her off.
According to both Shadbolt and Bruce Singer, associate superintendent of Sachem Schools, the driver followed the school’s transportation policy.
“He did what he was trained to do,” Singer said. “You have to look at the circumstances in total. There’s nothing cut or dry about this; it’s a judgement call at the moment.”
According to Hogan, she was informed that while the driver was not disciplined, he was going to be retrained and re-assigned to another bus route.
Now at the center of the debate, for both Hogan and Shadbolt, is whether or not a six-year-old is old enough to get off of a bus and walk home alone.
“How could you determine a positive difference between a six-year-old kindergartner, and a six-year-old first grader?” Hogan asked. “There really is none.”
But the school's policy as it stands, clearly only applies to kids at the kindergarten level. From first grade on, students can, and are, dropped off at bus stops unattended, with drivers making judgment calls about the safety of the situation. Shadbolt said that judgement applies to all students.
“We've brought students back all the way up to high school who were uncomfortable because either they didn't have keys or things weren't right, or something was amiss,” he said. “We would bring any child back to school that was uncomfortable getting off the bus at their home stop.”
“During this situation, if you’re leaving the driver to make that decision, where does common sense come into play?” Hogan asked. “My husband never would have suspected that a six-year-old would be let off the bus. Had she been more adventurous who knows what she would have done.”
Both Singer and Shadbolt have now set to the task of evaluating its policy for a possible amendment. They plan to be in contact with the elementary school principals from all 12 Sachem schools to discuss the logistics of changing the policy. According to Hogan, they will be meeting with her, her husband and Chippewa Principal Patricia Aubrey at the school on Jan. 21.
Singer said things to consider are how this may affect timing on bus routes and whether or not there will be any staff at the school to supervise children brought back to campus.
“On a normal day we can have between six and 10 children being brought back to the school,” Singer said. “That’s just the kindergarten kids. If we’re now going to extend to K through 3, it could be 30 or 40 children being brought back.”
Shadbolt said another issue is that some children are released to the supervision of guardians who aren't physically able to meet them at the stop. If the policy is changed, those students wouldn't be allowed to get off.
“We have to make sure we can implement it before we can amend it,” Singer said. “We have 200 buses on the road every day. It’s not that simple of flipping a switch and saying ‘OK we’re doing it.’ We really have to do our homework on it, evaluate it, see what the impact is… It’s a major change it’s not a little change.”
If there is any change to the policy, it will need board approval and will likely not be implemented until the 2014-15 school year.
For Hogan, it’s worth the time and energy. Her daughter is safe. But it could have turned tragic.“Why does the extreme have to happen in order for something to change?” Hogan said. “Let’s take this as a big red flag. If anything good can come out of a situation, then I’d want to see a policy change. ”