WATERLOO — Each morning as Robin Richardson’s 12-year-old son gets on the bus for summer school, she snaps a picture.
The Waterloo woman started the ritual last week after hearing about mistakes two Durham School Services bus drivers made, dropping off a 9-year-old girl at her family’s empty home instead of day care and leaving a 6-year-old boy on the bus after finishing a route. The July 8 and 9 incidents happened on the first two days of summer school. Both children were found uninjured the same day they were lost.
Richardson, whose son has Down syndrome and autism, told the Board of Education Monday during the public comment portion of its meeting that she’s taking the pictures “just in case the school district and the busing system loses my son.” The daily photo would enable her to quickly get a current picture of her son to law enforcement if something happened.
Nicole Luciano, mother of the 9-year-old who also has autism, spoke to the board, as well. After being mistakenly left at home, her daughter walked a mile to Target, likely crossing busy roads. Luciano raised concerns about different interpretations of her daughter’s individualized education program and questioned how much understanding the bus company and drivers have of its requirements.
“If all the safety protocols failed again, this could happen again,” she said, noting the outcome could be much worse.
Superintendent Jane Lindaman and board members said the district has and will continue responding to the incidents.
“The safety of our kids is the most critical importance,” said Lindaman. “As a district we were very concerned about what happened last week.”
“It’s too bad the incidents came, but they’re red flags to us that changes are needed,” said board member Lyle Schmitt.
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Board member Astor Williams said he has been dealing with IEPs for years as the parent of a special needs student. “I feel confident as a team we will do better,” he said.
Richardson, however, wants assurances beyond what the district and Durham, its contracted busing service, can provide.
The bus drivers’ mistakes “are absolutely appalling,” she said, suggesting “it’s past time” the district and Durham invite in an outside agency to review procedures on picking up and dropping off students. “This review should be done in a transparent manner.”
After the incidents, Richardson contacted local elected officials and tried to find an agency at the county or state level that could do a review. No one she talked to has specific authority for the task. She proposed in her comments to the board another school district’s busing officials should review Waterloo Schools’ procedures.
An outside agency gets involved “when you grandmother falls in a nursing home and breaks her hip,” Richardson noted. “When a school district and a transportation company lose two children in a week, it’s not only prudent but should be mandatory.”
Lindaman acknowledged her concern while suggesting officials had already spent a lot of time honing their policies before the incident.
“The protocols and procedures are in place, but it doesn’t prevent human error unless we practice and practice and practice,” she said. That’s been happening since the incidents.
Lindaman said the district has “spent a lot of time retraining” and considered additional use of technology. Sensors requiring drivers to walk through the buses before leaving them are also being looked at for school vans, where one of last week’s incidents happened. In addition, administrators are working to clarify language in IEPs and looking at procedures for locations where students are dropped off, such as child care facilities.
“We’ve had a couple dozen people looking at this,” she said. Changes already made relate to what happens on the bus, district staff procedures and documentation of students being transported.
“We have taken this as an opportunity to make sure these things never happen again,” said Lindaman.