Four-year-old left unattended for seven hours on school bus
A local family is looking for answers and a long-time school bus driver has been suspended indefinitely after a four-year-old boy was left alone on a school bus for seven hours last Thursday.
The young boy, a student in a special speech class at Vera M. Welsh, stayed on his school bus through the morning’s full route and was left in the bus when the driver finished the drop-offs and parked the vehicle for the day in the yard at his home south of Lac La Biche.
“He could’ve wandered off that bus and got hit by a car, or he could’ve frozen to death – it’s January,” said the boy’s father, Ryan Desjarlais. “We’ve just been in a state of shock since we heard.”
Desjarlais’ son got on the bus with his older brother at 8:30 a.m. last Thursday to go to a class at Vera M Welsh Elementary for students with speech impediments. He said his son was excited to go to school that day, as it was Tropical Day — a special events day where students and staff dress up in beach wear, drink ice-cream floats, take part in fun games, watch movies, learn dance moves, and listen to guest readers.
His older brother got off first at Central Elementary, but the younger boy never made it to his morning class – he spent the next seven hours in the bus parked outside the bus driver’s home, on the southern outskirts of Lac La Biche.
“The driver failed to do a walkthrough,” Desjarlais claims. “My son wet his pants and he was all white in the face when he finally got home. We stayed up all night crying.”
Northern Lights School Division spokesperson Cheryl Hunter said the driver notified school administration who then notified the parents when he discovered the young boy had been in the back of his bus all day.
“We have deep regrets,” Hunter said. “We’re very thankful it wasn’t -50 C out and that the student is OK – that’s what’s important.”
Hunter said the school division has a policy and training for drivers to perform a seat check, and that the driver has been suspended indefinitely. While she couldn’t say how the young boy was left alone in the bus, she did say the division will be carefully reviewing its policies and is launching an investigation into the incident to make sure it can’t happen again.
“We’re talking to everybody involved to try to find out what went wrong,” Hunter said, adding that more details would be available soon. “We’re going to be looking at all our policies with a magnifying glass.”
Desjarlais and his wife Holly took their son to the doctor to treat him for dehydration and mild hypothermia after his ordeal. The day he was on the bus, temperatures got down to -12 C. A week before, temperatures in the Lac La Biche area hovered in the low 30s.
Desjarlais doesn’t blame the bus driver solely for what happened – he said the school should have notified him that his son was absent from class. He said he had made a special arrangement for his son to be met at the bus in the morning and seen back to the bus after classes. But while questioning school officials about his son’s ordeal, Desjarlais was told the practice was discontinued without his knowledge in October.
Vera M Welsh principal Dana Robb said that while they have a policy to notify parents of absences, it doesn’t apply to the specialized speech class the four-year-old was taking because attendance is generally sporadic and the majority of the parents drop their children off for the class.
She added that the agreement to have the young boy met at the bus wasn’t permanent, and was only intended to last until he learned the school routine. Robb said they are reviewing their existing rules for calling parents for absences, adding that no teachers will be disciplined at Vera M Welsh as they had complied with current school policy.
“It’s not just one person that made a mistake,” Robb said. “There’s a whole bunch of things that went wrong. I’m just thankful that it wasn’t colder out and that nothing else happened.”
Desjarlais said his young son – and his whole family – has been deeply affected by the unfortunate incident.
“He was in a state of shock and he couldn’t stop crying,” Desjarlais said, hoping that local officials treat this as severely as government agencies would if it was a family-based incident. “If I left my son unattended for seven hours – I’d lose my kid.”
The story has attracted national attention and is the topic of many online forums. Desjarlais said the attention is because people can visualize their own children or children they know being left in the same situation.
“It’s such a scary thing – there’s no way a thing like this should be happening.”
School division officials couldn’t confirm exactly how long the driver has been working with the school division, but say he had been driving school buses for at least a decade.
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