By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
On a Monday afternoon, March 3, shortly after 4 p.m., five-year-old preschooler, Andy Brown, was dropped off on the Valdosta Highway two and half miles from his regular stop, with no adults present to meet him. Meanwhile, his mother, Kasey, who was waiting for him as usual at the end of her driveway, began wondering why the bus hadn’t arrived yet with her child.
In the ensuing two hours, Andy wandered to a house and knocked on a door to ask for help. The lady who answered his knock came to his aid and called the police. Andy’s mother also called the police to report him missing. By the time everything was sorted out and Andy was returned home, it was after 6 p.m.
“Andy is fine,” said Tori Willoughby, the boy’s aunt, in addressing the school board. “But our main concern is awareness.”
There were concerns about how this had happened in the first place. There were concerns about the family not being able to reach anyone at Pinetta Elementary, when someone should have been there at least until 5 p.m., with the after-school clubs; why weren’t the phone calls at least forwarded to an occupied office? There were concerns that this was not the first time that the school had lost track of a child, as Willoughby had learned from other parents. There were questions as to whether or not it was even an official stop on the route, or was it just “made-up.”
And, there were a lot of scary “what-ifs.”
“Andy could have been killed or kidnapped,” said Willoughby. “I’m not being dramatic.”
The lady whose house Andy eventually went to for help had a “Bad Dog” sign out front, Willoughby added. It just happened that the dog was penned up when the child appeared on the doorstep.
With all that, the family decided to contact WCTV News and make sure the situation got the attention it needed, so that this would not happen again to another child.
“The essence of what she said is true,” said Superintendent Doug Brown, who stated further that he was not told of the incident until two days later, which he called “unacceptable.” He expressed apologies over what had happened and gratitude that the child was safe. The two drivers, one a trainee who had never driven the route before and and aide who had, were suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. The policy in effect was that no child under a certain age was to be let out at a bus stop with approved adults there to meet them, but the age was not specified. If there was any doubt, the child should be brought back to the bus barn and the parents contacted.
Ivan Johnson, Director of Transportation for the school district, agreed that the age limit needed to be spelled out, but even without one, the majority of his drivers would bring even 5th and 6th graders back to the bus barn if there was any doubt. Furthermore, the drive that day wasn’t really certified to drive an 84 passenger bus, but there had been a shortage of buses that day.
Willoughby asked why the bus driver had done what she did, saying that the family was curious and wanted to know – why? Letting a five-year-old off by himself beside a highway, even telling him to get off when he knew it wasn’t his stop, was scenario that seemed to defy common sense. However, with the investigation still incomplete and no statement yet from the driver, a definite answer was not immediately available.
Brown recommended a thorough review of the bus policy by all involved personnel, and alluded to safety technology the school might consider in the future, something like Sun-Pass badges on the children’s backpacks that could be scanned. As for the phone policy, there should be someone at a phone taking calls as long as the building was occupied instead of having incoming calls directed to a voicemail message center.
However, when he said that the two drivers in question should be terminated immediately, school board member VeEtta Hagan took issue with that.
“What about the trainee following orders? We do not have her statement yet,” she said. Furthermore, she added, the drivers could not be terminated until the investigation was complete and the board members had voted on the matter.
Still, she did agree that the bus policy should be reviewed thoroughly, adding that notebooks with route maps should be given to all drivers, who would have to sign statements upon receiving them.
She then asked Willoughby how the district could restore the family’s faith in the bus system, and offered the services of a lady who drove several children in a station wagon to and from Pinetta Elementary, asking if it would help. The family has not allowed the child back on the school bus since that Monday, assuming the burden of transportation themselves.
Willoughby said that she couldn’t speak for her sister, who was at home sick, but they would talk about it and see.
The questions that didn’t have answers yet would have to wait, but the board agreed to proceed with immediate review of its bus policies and await the outcome of the investigation.