STOW — Busing for students in the Stow-Munroe Falls schools was not as smooth on opening day as hoped, with many parents taking to social media to complain about several problems, the most serious being a situation where two younger students were reported missing after they did not get off at their assigned stop.
The two students were eventually found safe on the bus and taken home, but the incident has led parents to question whether the district’s procedures should be changed.
Amanda Barton of Stow said that at the end of the first day of school on Tuesday, thinking her 8-year-old daughter was missing “was truly one of the most terrifying moments of my life.” Barton said when she had called the bus garage to see when her daughter would be dropped off, she was told her daughter had already been dropped off.
“When I finally got the bus garage on the phone, they radioed to the driver to ask about an ETA when the driver told the person calling that he had dropped my daughter off at Celia and Valleydale,” Barton said. She added this conversation happened at about 4:35 p.m. “At this point I was already outside looking for the bus and I happen to see it up at Tudor and Valleydale which then I assumed they were just mistaken but she confirmed that the driver said my daughter got off the bus already.”
However, Barton said she did not see her daughter coming off the bus and was again told her child had left the bus. Barton said she went to her child’s grandparents’ house to see if she had gone there. After she was told no, Barton said that she called 911 to report her child missing. She also had her two older sons start canvasing the neighborhood.
“I began running in the neighborhood screaming her name and desperately trying to find my child,” Barton said. She said she called her husband, who works in Cleveland. “He dropped everything and started heading home.”
Barton said about 10 minutes later, a neighbor started screaming and waving for her attention.
“She was screaming ‘they found them, they found them,’” Barton said. “She was concerned about her own child. I came running back and she was on the phone with the bus garage who had told her that they had found my daughter and her daughter.”
Stow Police Chief Jeff Film said the two girls had been found on the bus.
“At no time were the children in harm’s way,” Film said.
Film said the school resource officer Barry Smith had already been at the bus garage checking into another case when the call about the children came through.
“They contacted the bus driver, who did not initially respond,” Film said. “They looked at the GPS unit to find the bus. A unit was sent to the bus, and the girls were found. There was some confusion from the driver as to who he left off and who he did not.”
The girls were taken home in a school maintenance vehicle by two bus mechanics who also work as substitute bus drivers, Film said.
Robert Gress, director of operations with the Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools, said that he met Wednesday with Barton.
“I’ve either met with these parents or have scheduled to meet them,” Gress said of the parental complaints. “My sense is that we are on the same page and we will be fine.”
Barton said she was upset that she found out about her daughter being found secondhand, through her neighbor, and was not called directly by either the police or the bus garage until after the fact.
“It wasn’t just the Stow schools who dropped the ball, the police also dropped the ball,” Barton said.
Film acknowledged there was a breakdown in communication.
“We thought the school notified her and told her they were bringing their daughter home,” Film said. “When the police thought the issue was resolved from the school, they went on other calls. Our response was immediate; our officer was already at the bus garage when he heard, and he responded.
“This is all very typical of the first day and first week when you are dealing with kindergarten through 12th grade,” Film said of the missed bus stop. “We are empathetic to the mother, and we understand that a missing child situation would be harrowing. We are working on ways to correct lines of communication between all three, the schools, the families and the police.”
Barton said she would like to see the district evaluate its policies to help ensure the lack of communication does not happen again.
“I work for the Hudson schools, and I talked to someone who works in transportation there,” Barton said. “I was told that in a case like this, when there is a call about a missing child, a bus is supposed to stop and check their bus just in case. I have a friend who works in the Kent district who told me the same thing.”
Steve Wood, the chief operating officer for the Tallmadge City Schools, said that if a child was reported as missing, “the bus garage gets immediately on the phone to the bus, and the driver pulls over to check the bus as soon as it is safe to do so.” If the child is not found, then all buses are contacted so their buses can be checked, and the police are then called.
Wood added that missed bus stops and other incidents are common during the first week of a new school year.
“It happens,” Wood said. “These situations have happened in Tallmadge. Say for example you have a kindergartner — they get on the bus with a friend, and they get off the bus with that friend.”
The bus driver should catch something like that, Wood said, but they may be getting used to a new route, or they might have 15 kids getting off at one stop, such as at a day care center.
“We are reminding our drivers to be extra vigilant,” Wood said. “You could write a book about what happens with busing on the first day of school.”
Also, Barton said that her child had been scared about getting into a vehicle with two strangers. She added she happened to recognize one of them when they stopped at the house, but said neither her daughter nor her neighbor had known either of them.
Gress said that “there was no state law to prohibit a student from being transported occasionally” by another school vehicle.
“Obviously we can’t do this every day, but if there’s an emergency” this is an option, Gress said.
Gress said safety was of foremost importance in the district.
“Nothing ever surpasses ‘how do we get students to where they need to be’ than safety,” Gress said. “We are listening to their concerns, and we won’t stop until they feel comfortable.”
Gress encouraged parents to call the district with concerns.
“I know there’s been a lot of difficulty getting information from the bus garage,” Gress said.
Gress said the situation could call for either further education or discipline but he would not know until the incident was explored thoroughly.
“All of our drivers, they want to be good drivers as well,” Gress said. “They are there to learn as well.”
Another parent, Heather Trumblak of Stow, said she also was not happy that her 10th-grade son had to walk three blocks from the house.
“I understand he is in high school but walking that far to the bus stop is ridiculous especially when he has an IEP and he doesn’t move very fast in the mornings,” Trumblak said. “Not all kids are the same. Secondly, my daughter who is in sixth grade called me from her bus yesterday, scared.”
Trumblak said her daughter told her that “the bus driver didn’t know where he was going and passing up kids’ stops.”
“I can hear all the kids yelling in the background,” Trumblak said. “She said they drove around a different neighborhood three times. Then she wasn’t even dropped off at her stop. I was waiting for her at her stop and the bus driver dropped her off at the other end of the street. When the driver approached the stop I was standing at, I asked him where my daughter was, and he had no clue who I was talking about.”
Trumblak posted on Facebook that on Aug. 22, the school bus broke down.
According to the bus regulations posted at the Ohio Department of Education, “pupils in grades kindergarten through eight may be required to walk up to one half mile to a designated bus stop.” Busing for children with an IEP is not automatically provided unless it is specified on their IEP.
Several parents posted on Facebook that they planned to go to the next school board meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at Kimpton Middle School.
Reporter April Helms can be reached at 330-541-9423, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @AprilKHelms_RPC