Note: I haven’t had a lot of time recently for this blog, but today’s events require a post.
Today, for the second time in two months, Cowichan Valley School District 79 lost my 5-year old daughter on the school bus. Because our area lacks any on-site out-of-school care programs, and because my husband and I both work, she takes the school bus daily from her school to an after-school program run by a local daycare centre. The principal of her school sees the children on to the buses, but evidently from there, they are on their own.
The bus system lost her for the first time about a month ago. She was left at the side of the road in a neighbourhood nowhere close to her intended destination. The driver’s explanation was that she (it may have been a he; I don’t recall) saw an adult at the stop and believed that was who Annika was meeting. Luckily, although the adult was a complete stranger to us, she was a parent meeting other children from the same school, and equally luckily, my crying 4-year old (this was shortly before her birthday) had the wherewithal to pull the card out of her bag where we’d written her contact information, hand it to said parent, and ask for help. The parent called the school, the school called me, and I left work early to pick her up at the other parent’s house, relieved that Annika was okay. We spoke with the school and the school district, and were assured it would not happen again. The school district’s bus supervisor promised she would speak with the driver, who she said was “a spare,” to make sure the driver was more careful in the future. Without a lot of options, we took them at their word. [ETA: I went back and checked my records, and this first incident actually took place on Oct. 31, 8 days after her 5th birthday.]
Today, about an hour after school was dismissed, her after-school program phoned me to ask where she was. Cue major panic. “What do you mean, where is she? Why isn’t she with you?!” A flurry of somewhat frantic phone calls ensued between me, my husband, the daycare, the school, the police, and the bus supervisor. Annika was located about 10 minutes later, still on her bus. It seems that the daycare provider—who meets several kids at the bus stop each day to walk them back to the centre—had not seen her on the bus and assumed she was absent, and the bus driver did not check to see if all the children who were to get off at that stop actually got off the bus. After I called the elementary school, and the principal called the bus supervisor, the supervisor radio’d the bus driver, who brought her back to the daycare centre. While Annika was very upset, she was safe and unharmed, and we soon had her back at home.
The upshot of today’s loss is that for an hour, between dismissal, and eventual arrival at the centre, my 5-year old was left to her own devices, and the adult entrusted with her safety both had no idea who she was and took no responsibility for her whereabouts. My 5-year old. My baby. It could have been someone else’s baby; other days, it probably is. Today, it was mine.
When I spoke with the bus supervisor, her answer was that that particular bus route is staffed by casuals. (Note that last month the answer was it was just a “spare”—no indication that spares are, in fact, the norm on bus 5.) The individual who “owns” the route is on temporary leave in another position, but union rules prevent the district from posting the position for a replacement. Instead, someone different drives the bus each day, which means that unlike other routes, the driver is not familiar with the children or where they are going. This is astounding when you think that even my 15-year old’s bus driver knows her by name; to think that my 5-year old, by contrast, is just an anonymous, random child on her bus is utterly ridiculous, and clearly a safety risk.
The supervisor’s solution was that Annika should sit at the front of the bus, with an older child who will be her buddy, and the daycare should be more careful to ensure they pick her up appropriately. I’m with them on the final point, and you can bet the daycare got an earful from me as well—there is shared accountability here, no doubt. However, the daycare’s problem was one individual’s mistake: one teacher didn’t do her due diligence. By contrast, the district’s problem is a systems issue: this bus route is insufficiently supervised, and the district claims there is nothing they can do about it.
A fundamental problem with the district’s proposed ‘solution’ is that it puts the onus on children to look out for themselves: my 5-year old is supposed to be responsible enough to sit in the right spot, and someone else’s child, who couldn’t be more than 11, given the age groupings in her school, is being given an enormous and completely inappropriate responsibility of caring for a younger child. While these are good safeguards, and we certainly will follow through with both if she ever rides the bus again, they are nowhere close to enough—these are safeguards only, not solutions. We simply can’t trust Annika to do the right thing. 5-year olds are too young for that. They are babies. From a developmental perspective, expecting her to be responsible for herself is unrealistic and utterly absurd. Granted, she’s a smart cookie and I think she might be able to do the right thing most of the time. But I wouldn’t count on it. Distract her with something sparkly and all bets are off.
I proposed (and I admit my proposal was stated in a fairly loud and angry tone—I think that is understandable, given the situation) that the drivers on this route, because they are casual, need to take extra safety measures and in addition to having a list of which children are on the bus, should take an extra minute at each stop to consult the list and make sure the kids who are meant to get off do in fact get off, and the kids who are meant to stay on, stay on. This is not rocket science. The supervisor’s response? Absolutely not. Why? Because it will “frustrate” the car drivers who get stuck behind the stopped school bus.
The supervisor was sure to point out to me that I was the one being difficult, as I tried to explain to her why her proposals just didn’t cut it. The daycare teachers were similarly defensive. Guess what. I don’t care. I don’t care why the district lost my child, or why the daycare teacher couldn’t find her. I. Don’t. Care. All I care about is her safety. I trust the district with my child 5 days per week, from the time she gets on the morning bus, until she is (supposedly) safely delivered to the professionally-run daycare program that we pay to look after her until the work day is done. Bottom line: I can’t trust the district anymore. No parent can.
I asked the supervisor if she could please guarantee me that Annika would be safe if I were to put her on the bus again. I asked her to guarantee that she would not be lost again. She evaded the question because, clearly, she can’t. There is something seriously wrong with this picture.
The best solution would be for the schools to have on-site after-school care. That would solve the problem and would be a benefit to many, many families. But we can’t hold our breath waiting for that to take place.
In any case, School District 79 must be held accountable, and must guarantee the safety and security of each and every child on the buses, at all times. Anything short of a 100% guarantee—no excuses, no exceptions, no pawning the responsibility off on anyone else—is simply unacceptable. As long as a child is inside that bus, the district is responsible for that child. End of story.
Thanks to the generosity of a friend who has offered to pick up, Annika won’t have to ride the bus after school tomorrow. My husband and I simply can’t put her back on that bus. It just isn’t safe. I worry about all the other children who will still be riding. I don’t know what our long-term solution will be, but I do know that I’m not going to go gently into the night: this is not the last that School District 79 has heard from me.