The Horrifying Neglect Of Kids With Special Needs On School Buses: This Has Got To Stop

One morning, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome boards a bus for her first day of school. She is nonverbal, particularly so since her mother died of breast cancer a few months ago.

Her grandmother, who puts her on the bus, trusts that the driver will safely transport this teen to school. Only this is what happens: The girl never ends up making it off the bus. Five hours later, the grandmother gets a call from the school asking why her granddaughter did not show up. The premises are searched. The bus driver, now on his afternoon route, is called.

The girl, it turns out, is still on the bus, sleeping and unharmed. The driver had left the bus parked in a terminal for hours between shifts, with her inside, undetected.

If this sounds like some made-for-TV movie, sadly, it is not. It happened in Crestwood, Illinois last week. The driver has been fired, and the Alpha School Bus Company is under investigation.

Even more shocking: This is the fourth incident this summer of a student with special needs getting left on a bus.

The same thing happened on August 10 to a six-year-old boy with Down syndrome in Phoenix, Arizona. The high that day was 105 degrees; the inside of the van would have been even hotter. The child was in the van for at least an hour, possibly longer. He was unable to unlock his seat belt.

The same thing happened on July 29 to to a 6-year-old child with autism in Dania Beach, Florida. The bus’s surveillance camera shows the driver and aide getting off the bus without checking the seats to see if any children were still there.

The same thing happened on July 20 to a four-year-old boy with special needs in Jersey City, New Jersey who was headed to a summer program. He was in the bus for four hours before a bus company mechanic discovered him. It was another sweltering hot day.

The same thing happened on May 11 to a three-year-old boy with autism in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was alone on the bus, strapped in, for six hours.

Keep Googling and you’ll also find incidents of this happening during wintertime as well.

The 19-year-old girl and children were OK, although several were dehydrated and needed hospitalization. Drivers and aides were arrested, some charged with neglect.

This is all horrifying—and outrageous. Forget the fact that a lot of these kids are on small buses, which are even easier to check than the large kind. These drivers and aides are entrusted with a tremendous responsibility. As amazing as these kids and teens with special needs may be, they are vulnerable. Some of them cannot speak. Some are in wheelchairs. Some do not have enough cognition to know the name of their school. Some have medical conditions that make them more prone to overheating.

There is no excuse for a driver or aide to neglect the simple task of checking buses to make sure all kids are off. Set aside the fact that these jobs are not well paid; if you take the job, you take the responsibility. Perhaps bus companies need to do a more thorough screening job for hires. And they need to be extra rigorous about making sure employees follow procedures.

Installing video cameras on buses that transport kids with special needs, and having supervisors review them to make sure drivers or aides always sweep the bus to look for left-behind children, could help weed out negligent personnel. Schools can help, too, by having bus monitors also check buses. And they should alert parents as soon as child does not show up at school. That’s why my son’s school does, every single time.

Perhaps the law needs to up the ante, too, charging drivers and aides not just with neglect but with child abuse as well. Because leaving a child in an inferno of a bus is child abuse. For once, I’d like the law to rise to the occasion before a child dies.

I’m going to be putting my son on a bus in a couple of weeks for his first day of school. I know his drivers, and trust them, and for that I feel lucky. It is upsetting to picture these children, alone on a bus, hot, miserable and scared.

Children on buses are the most precious cargo on the road. They should be treated as such.

Photo/istock

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  1. by Tara

    On August 22, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I am proud to say my Aunts (3 out 5) are all special needs bus drivers,& this story is appalling.We definetly need laws to protect these children. Is there anything in the works yet?

  2. by Dawn

    On August 22, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    I am a mom of a special needs child who has apraxia of speech (very limited speech) and I am horrified! My child has to ride over one hour each way to and from school. I do get to know each driver/matron, I get each of their cell phone numbers and thank goodness her school is on top of their game when it comes to making sure their children are off of the bus before it leaves the school. Maybe officials, law makers, the owners of these bus companies and their employees need a little exercise of their own – each should have to survive the very situation they placed these children in and act with the same limitations these children have – and then have to report their experience. Let them endure the situation without being able to speak or call for help. I’m willing to bet they would never miss another child, special needs or not, ever again! Thank you for placing the spotlight on a very important issue!!

  3. by Katrina C

    On August 22, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I can’t imagine letting my son who has autism take a school bus. I’m just not there yet. Perhaps when he is older and can go with his sister, but for now I drive him and pick him up. I’m really blessed that my work situation allows for that.

  4. by Tiruba from Tubaville

    On August 22, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    This happened to my daughter. She is developmentally disabled and rode the school bus for a year. Her regular bus driver was great with her, as she had kids with special needs. However, one day there was a substitute driver. And my daughter did not get off the bus at her grandma’s like she was supposed to…then she didn’t get off at our house…we started making calls…it took us over an hour to find out that she was still on the bus.

    It is still an annual battle to get her special ed transportation even though she has a 1:1 paraprofessional all day at school and cannot even cross the street on her own…and if I don’t trust the special ed driver I drive her myself.

  5. by Carrie

    On August 22, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    I have a 5 year old daughter with autism and one day her driver “forgot” to drop her off after school. I don’t even like to think what would have happened if I we hadn’t called right away when the bus was late. Initially when the driver was radioed, he claimed that he had already dropped her off “with her mom”. My husband screamed at the dispatch supervisor so loudly that his employees (outside his office) were getting really nervous. She was fast asleep on the bus and had no clue what had happend, but we were really shaken up. Now that my 3 year old, who also has autism, is starting a preschool program I’m going to drive both girls to school. I’m really glad that I have the means to do that now as I feel really uncomfortable putting my “babies” on the bus.

  6. by Kara

    On August 22, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    special needs or not these stories are horrifying as a parent!!!! the laws SHOULD be tougher, I work in a group home and neglect and abuse would be slapped on you by Adult Protective Services so why isn’t the same happening to these bus drivers by Child Protective Services? parents trust the drivers to safely drive their kids to school and escort them off, I know they don’t get paid well but neither do I and I do NOT neglect my JOB at all! What are they waiting for to toughen the law, a fatality? Disgusted :-(

  7. by Heidi

    On August 22, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Personally I have heard nothing but terrible stories about the things that go on in a school bus. A friend of mine was shown pornographic magazines on a bus when she was only 6. A kid I went to school with was severely beaten up by other children on the bus and the driver didn’t notice. Many buses do not have seat belts and children are injured in crashes more severely than they would have been if they’d had seat belts. My solution? Carpool. Carpools have been a great help to me and my children since they started school, and you only have to carpool with another parent whom you know and trust, not a stranger who just happens to drive the bus.

  8. by Katherine

    On August 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    This is my biggest fear. My son who has a speech impairment went to a specialized school, but he could talk (cannot understand him)and he was older, but my 3 year old who is starting tomorrow for her first day scares me so much because, unlike her brother and older sister, she does not speak well nor does she know how to take off her seat belt and we live in AZ and it gets so hot. This is my biggest concern, what if she gets left behind? I would die if something happened to my youngest daughter. This should be a law, those who leave a special needs child behind is child abuse, especially in the heat of the summer to the cold winters in some areas.

  9. by Eleanor

    On August 22, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    I supervise some of the most caring and most professional Special Needs School Bus Drivers in California. My Instructors and myself are constantly reminding them how important it is to check their bus after each route. These horror stories are a reminder of what can happen if a driver forgets this most important part of their job.

    I’m going to print this story and share it with my drivers.

  10. by Erin

    On August 22, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    seriously why is a 3 or 4 yr old with special needs on a bus anywhere?

  11. by Ali B

    On August 22, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    Give your kid a whistle. I’m not being patronizing, they’re good to have for emergency situations. As long as you teach when it is appropriate to use, it could be a lifesaver.

  12. by MARY BASSHAM

    On August 22, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    THAT WILL NOT HAPPEN IN LIMESTONE COUNTY, AL THESE DAYS BECAUSE ALL THE BUSES HAVE CAMERAS AND THE NEW BUSES HAVE BUZZERS THAT GO OFF WHEN THE BUS IS TURNED OFF AND THE DRIVER HAS TO GO TO THE REAR OF THE BUS TO TURN IT OFF. I AM PROUD TO SAY THAT ALL THESE EXTRA’S HAVE BEEN ADDED BUT IT MAKES ME SO SAD THAT A BUS DRIVER WOULD NOT TAKE EXTRA TIME AND ATTENTION FOR THESE WONDERFUL CHILDREN!! I DROVE A SCHOOL BUS FOR 23 YEARS AND ALL THE CHILDREN ON MY BUS WERE TREATED LIKE THEY WERE MY OWN. SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS ARE HAULING THE MOST PRECIOUS CARGO IN THE WORLD!!

  13. by Kim

    On August 22, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Sadly I stopped putting my special needs son on a bus after a few incidents. The last and most horrifying was when the temp driver tried to drop my son at the wrong house. My 5 year old kept telling him that is not my house and the bus company tried arguing with me on the phone when I called them because he wasn’t home yet. They kept telling me the driver was at my house and I wasn’t there. Long story short the driver was 2 streets up on a street with a similar name. Thankfully my son was aware enough to know what his house looked like.

  14. by Austin Williamson

    On August 22, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    Maybe the special needs parents should start paying a small fee of about 25-50$, depending on the financial situation, (like the rest of us, although ours our in the hundreds of $$$) for bus service, and they can install a scanner in the bus that scans a barcode on the buspass upon entry and exit, and an alert will sound if someone doesn’t scan out when the bus leaves the school (bus’ have gps monitors in them)after they are done with their shift. An automated alert would also be sent to the head honcho at the bus yard, and to the parents of the student who didn’t scan out.

  15. by B in Tampa

    On August 22, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    Something definitely MUST be done to see that this does NOT continue to happen!!! But, asking a bus driver to drive a large bus in heavy traffic while at the same time overseeing the actions of 40 or so children is being a bit too unrealistic. No wonder there is a constant shortage of drivers!

  16. by Peggy Martinez

    On August 22, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    Having worked in Special Needs classrooms for many years in the lovely state of California, I can attest to the fact that the incidents have been happening for many years. Children left on buses, non-verbal children dropped off at the wrong spot… but in our district Nothing was done to the driver, especially the repeat offender. The abuse of Special Needs students and my reporting it was why I was transferred from my 13 year position, overnight. Parent’s of Special Needs students need to drop in on the classrooms unannounced… you would be shocked what you find.
    (There were amazing teachers and bus drivers and attendants in our district…but no child deserves what administrators cover up.)

  17. by FairFax County, VA Bus Driver here

    On August 23, 2011 at 12:24 am

    I have to say that is just crazy! The buses out here in Fairfax County Virginia has a child check alarm. After our traffic lights are activated the bus knows kids have been on board. We park our bus turn key off we have 30 seconds to walk to the back of our bus and press a button back there to let the system know we walked to back of the bus and checked for children. I thought all newer buses had them?!

  18. by Aleta

    On August 23, 2011 at 12:25 am

    My Dad is an Aide on a bus for Children with Special needs and I can promise you this would NEVER happen on his bus….You want to know why because he CARES!!! I started in the Human Services Feild about 7 years ago and My Father followed suit about 3 years ago coming out of retirement to be an Aide!! And to help make a difference, he was an Aide to one of my clients who is non verbal and know Mr. Charlie helped to open the door to a great relationship for me & my client….I hope all off those horrible people are punished but I am thankful for people like my Dad, who do it because we care!!!

  19. by Kj

    On August 23, 2011 at 2:10 am

    As a child taking the bus, I specifically remember after all the passengers got out, watching our bus driver close the doors and do a walk through to the back of the bus, pointing to each seat there and back every time before getting in his seat, adjusting his hat and driving off. It probably took “30 seconds. Isn’t this standard practice for bus drivers?

  20. by Veronica

    On August 23, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Erin, a child in the preschool program would be riding a special needs bus. The preschool program is for students with special needs. It’s part of the public school system.

    My autistic brother rode the special needs bus for his entire school career and there was never an incident like this. I’m sure if you look at the statistics this is actually more rare, but it is troubling that it happens at all.

  21. by Marie

    On August 23, 2011 at 6:37 am

    This is absolutely horrifying. I live in Janesville, WI & I have a special needs child named Maxx. I’m lucky to say that he rides the bus by himself w/a loving, caring bus driver & aide. Everyone is all aware of his medical conditions, what to watch for, & how to do it. The bus aides’ name is Connie & she absolutely loves Maxx. She’s always concerned if he’s not on the bus. She even went as far as buying Maxx a Christmas/Birthday (yes, my son’s bday is on Christmas Day) present last year.

  22. by Denise

    On August 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

    This is Horrible! I am a single mother to my soon to be 3yr old boy and he too will be riding the bus in a matter of weeks. He doesn’t have all of his words, he wouldnt know how to unbuckle a belt, he could get out of the belt if he tried hard enough…sadly though he wouldn’t try because he would be overcome with fear. Somebody needs to shake things up and make some changes, or lose their licensing…hold the schools responsible too, not just the bus company. I work at a daycare and if a child doesnt show up and there is no phone calls from the parents to say why the delay/no show we make the call to them and ask what’s up instead of assuming the child will be a no show…why is nobody calling these parents sooner looking for these kids?? This should be somebodies job in the school district to call all families with special needs children after an hour of no show/no call…somebody needs to step up for these kiddos. You can’t blame the parent’s for this one!

  23. by Mandi

    On August 23, 2011 at 8:30 am

    My son is almost 4 and severely autistic and non verbal .We are VERY blessed that the bus driver and aide are great! Also @my sons school (CArney Academy ) the teachers, who are all really amazing, escort the kids off and onto the bus before departure . ALL schools should do this!

  24. by Bridget

    On August 23, 2011 at 9:22 am

    My son is not special needs but he fell asleep on the bus one afternoon. Thank God, the bus driver checks her bus after every run and she found him, sound asleep, in his seat.

  25. by Amanda

    On August 23, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I am a school bus driver. We have unfortunately had an incident with a Special Needs child 2 yrs ago. The driver took her bus home and didn’t have a mid day route-so wasn’t even supposed to do that-and she got out of her bus, left her key on accessory all day so it wouldn’t go off and left a Special Needs boy on her bus. All day long the child sat there unable to really do anything. She got back on her bus in the afternoon and tried to act like nothing was wrong and that the child had in deed gone to school. We all found out about this and of course are out raged! This was uncalled for! There is NO excuse for a driver or aide to NOT CHECK their bus!!! Both bus companies I have worked for use cameras on the bus, as well as GPS to be able to locate the buses no matter where they are. We are entrusted with another person’s child. We are responsible for making sure that child either gets to school or home from school safely.. EVERY TIME…so for these drivers and their aides to NOT check??! They SHOULD be punished. Neglect? Abuse? Harming a child? Heck yeah! These drivers also give the drivers, like myself, that love our jobs and do our jobs correctly a bad name!!! We have specially trained, been back ground checked, have Drug tests constantly, re train, have safety meetings, etc. We are constantly reminded to check our buses. “I care, I search” is our company’s motto for that. Special needs children need extra love and attention. And I Personally feel that if you can’t love and appreciate them for who they are, as a driver or aide, you shouldn’t be in this job! And as a Sub driver? They might not know the routes; and yet that is STILL not an excuse to forget children on the bus, miss stops, to NOT double check everything, etc. Please remember that there are some of us that are parents as well and love our jobs. That WE aren’t the exception…THEY-the bad ones-are!

  26. by beth arky

    On August 23, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Ellen, you already know your drivers? Our driver and matron change twice a year, before and after the summer session, when the bus company contracts change. I only wish I could get back the amazing team we had a couple of years ago.

  27. by Ellen Seidman

    On August 24, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I was sorry to read some of the stories here, but heartened to hear about the new measures that prevent drivers from leaving kids on the bus.

    And yes, Beth, we’ve had the same driver/aide for two years, and I think they will be ours again this year. After looking into all these incidents, I feel VERY lucky.

  28. by Tessa

    On August 25, 2011 at 11:55 am

    I use to be a school bus driver and unfortunately mistakes do happen. Sometimes you forget to stop at a stop to pickup or drop off a child at home or school. We are only human, but, there is NO EXCUSE for not checking the bus before you leave it. My school district required us to stop the bus and check it at the school in the a.m. and before we left our route to park it in the pm. They also have buttons in the back that have to be pushed before you turn off the bus. If you forget to push it then the horn will go off until you go back and push it as a reminder to check the bus. I wonder if these were old busses? Were these people who have no love for children? NO EXCUSE!!!

  29. by wendy

    On August 29, 2011 at 8:27 am

    There are some things you have to do yourself. The average school employee, including teachers, has no knowledge of most of the common disorders seen in school-age kids, let alone a more rare one or one where the child just has what seem to be random behaviors. No matter what they say, most school districts (maybe not California or in the NE) have very little to offer a special needs child. Keep an eye on everything!

  30. by Daina Guild

    On September 6, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    My best friend drives a special needs route for Cherry Creek in the Denver area and my father-in-law for Brown Bus in Idaho. Both take these kids very seriously, know them by name, etc. I think it’s terrible that this could happen. I’ve worked for school dist. as classroom aide and now in a Dev. Therapy center and I see transport drivers that I would Never! let my “normal” kids ride with, much less special needs.

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