First Day

Students step off a school bus at Kinsey Elementary during the first day of school Thursday.

Taylor Mahoney Arizona Daily Sun

Heather Herrick experienced an event that is only a nightmare for most parents: watching the school bus go by without dropping off your child and then having to call the police to help you find your child.

Herrick said the incident happened about two weeks ago. She dropped her 7-year-old son off at Knoles Elementary. It was the first day that he would ride the bus home. Herricks explained that her son had attended first grade last year at a local charter school and had never taken the bus to and from school. To make sure that she had the right bus stop to pick him up that afternoon she checked the school’s website and with the office assistant at the school. After confirming she had the right stop, she asked that son and his teacher be notified so that he would be reminded as to which stop to get off at and that she would be waiting for him there.

That afternoon, Herrick waited at the bus stop and was astonished to see the bus zoom by without stopping. She tried to flag down the bus driver but was unsuccessful. She then called the school, which put her in touch with the dispatcher at the bus barn. The dispatcher got in touch with the bus driver, who said that the boy had gotten off at a prior stop, but couldn’t say exactly which stop.

Herrick said she was advised to calm down and call the police to help locate her child, which she did. She then contacted one of her older kids at home and had him start to search the neighborhood on his bike. About 20 to 30 minutes later, she found her son, crying and trying to find his way home.

Bob Kuhn, the FUSD assistant superintendent of Operations, said unfortunately at least once or twice a year, the district deals with the problem of a misplaced child. Sometimes the child has gotten off at the wrong stop, like Herrick’s son, and sometimes it’s because the parent forgot that they gave the student permission to stay after school for a program or permission to take the bus to a friend’s house.

Kuhn said in Herrick’s case, a number of things made the situation worse. The usual bus dispatcher was out sick. It was the boy's first ride on a school bus and he wasn’t sure where he was supposed to get off and gave the bus driver the wrong stop.

But Kuhn said change is the works for just such a problem that befell Herrick and her son: a new bus/student tracking program called Here Comes the Bus.

The program includes a near-frequency card and card reader, he said. Each student will have a card attached to their school bag that is programed with their name, picture, bus route and teacher’s name. A near-frequency card reader on the bus will read each card as the students get on and off the bus and the information will pop up on a display for the bus driver.

The system also includes a free smart phone app for parents and students that uses the bus’s GPS system to let them know when the bus will arrive and when their student got on and off the bus. It also lets the district know which stops the student got on or off the bus, which makes the problem of a misplaced student a lot easier to resolve.

Kuhn said the new bus tracking program is supposed to be installed in November. The district wanted to install it at the beginning of the school year but needed more internet bandwidth.

Kuhn said most bus drivers know the students on their bus and where they’re supposed to get off. Herrick’s son was new to the driver and she didn’t know that he had given her an incorrect bus stop. Most bus stops are located near homes and at the intersections of main streets in neighborhoods.

Herrick said she’s never heard of a child being able to get off the bus at another stop without a note from a parent. She has older children who have attended FUSD schools and each has had to have a note in order to ride the bus to a friend’s house or to get off at a different stop from their normal stop.

Kuhn said that all students have to have a note to get off at another stop or to ride a bus different from their normal route. The district has always had that policy and it hasn’t changed. The district also has a policy that kindergartners are not allowed off the bus unless a parent is waiting for them at the bus stop.

Herrick asked that an investigation be opened. When the investigator called her back last week, she told Herrick that no one was at fault and that her son was actually still on the bus when it zoomed by her. She was told that the buses can carry up to 50 kids and it’s hard for bus drivers to remember where each child is supposed to get on and off. She was also told that it was her son who gave the bus driver the information on where he was supposed to get off and he wasn’t exactly sure of the street, so he told the driver the name of a street that he could remember in the neighborhood. When the bus got to that street, the bus driver reminded him that this was his stop and told him he needed to get off there.

“She didn’t even ask him if he saw his mom or if he was sure that this was his stop,” Herrick said. “I’m not trying to dis the district or the bus driver. I just want to know what happened, so we can prevent this from happening to another student and parent.”

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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