Indiana children still left on school buses 3 years after new state law

District reporting of incidents inconsistent

INDIANAPOLIS - The Call 6 Investigators have uncovered a state law designed to prevent children from being left alone on school buses isn’t working exactly as intended.

A law went into effect July 1, 2009, that requires school districts and bus companies to report when a child is left alone on a school bus within five working days.

Lawmakers thought the bill would boost transparency and, more importantly, cut down on the number of children left behind, but Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney has uncovered that’s not the case.

No one knows how many children were left on school buses in Indiana before July 2009, because no one had to report that information to the state.

Since the law took effect, records show 69 incidents, including nine in 2009, 18 in 2010, 22 in 2011 and 20 in 2012.

Some incidents involve one child while others involve multiple children.

The law doesn’t require school districts to disclose how long a child is left, but incidents examined by the Call 6 Investigators showed times that ranged from a few minutes to several hours.

"I'm actually quite shocked," said Emily Elling, an Indianapolis mother who worries about her daughter Piper, 8, on the school bus. "I had no idea the numbers were as high as they were."

In May 2012, a Center Grove bus driver left a dozen students on a bus for 15 minutes while she went into a McDonald's.

Transportation director Rick Pederson said the students involved were junior varsity baseball players.

"Anything can happen when a child is left unattended on a school bus," said Pederson. "Any child left in our care, regardless of age, is not to be left unattended."

Bad things can happen when children are left alone in vehicles. A 3-year old boy from Texas died in July 2012 after being left inside a hot day care van.

On a freezing January day in 2010, an 8-year-old girl in Tippecanoe County fell asleep on the bus, then woke up and wandered across the street to a nearby store. Police took her home.

In another Center Grove incident, a police officer found a disoriented student wandering the street after she awoke on a parked bus. The driver involved in that incident was fired.

In the McDonald's incident, the Center Grove driver resigned, leaving Pederson frustrated.

"You can't believe one of your people would be that careless," said Pederson. "I could not believe it, and I pulled the video to prove them wrong, and I was the one that was wrong."

The bus driver who went into McDonald's knew she left the children on the bus, but many drivers are not aware because the child is sleeping or hiding underneath a seat.

The Center Grove school district has several measures in place that encourage drivers to check the bus, including an electronic child check system which sounds an alarm if a driver does not walk to the back of the bus.

"It falls back to the driver," said Pederson. "It's easy for any child to fall asleep on a bus."

Pederson told RTV6 that he, along with mechanics, also check the buses for children.

"When I leave, I'm the last one out, and I'll go through the lot as well and double check," said Pederson. "We need to make sure children get home safely every night."

The Call 6 Investigators found hundreds of school districts without a single child left, while nine bus companies and school corporations reported more than once incident.

Read: Students Left On Bus Spreadsheet

The Metropolitan School District of Perry Township, in Marion County, and the Brownsburg Community School Corp. had the most reported incidents statewide, with three each.

Perry Township declined requests to for an on-camera interview, but released a statement.

"The safe and secure transportation of our students is and always has been our expectation," read the statement. "We have annual, mandatory training for our bus drivers, reinforcing our policy so that no child will be left unattended on our buses."

Brownsburg school officials agreed to answer questions on camera at their transportation depot about how children could be left on a school bus three separate times.

"Well, it's never intentional," said Donna Petraits, spokeswoman for Brownsburg schools. "The circumstances vary in all three of those cases. I'm pleased to say it's been over a year since we've had a situation."

In one Brownsburg case, a bus driver stepped away for a few minutes to use a restroom, leaving a fourth-grader alone on the bus.

"Sometimes you have things like that where it shouldn’t have happened, but sometimes things do, unfortunately," said Petraits.
     
Michael LaRocco, director of school transportation for the Indiana Department of Education, said he is disappointed that the law seems to have no impact on bus drivers leaving students alone.

"A little unsettling," said LaRocco. "Every kid has the potential of being in a dangerous situation if they're left on a bus. The ideal number would be zero."

The law does not require the state or school districts to post the information online, so the Call 6 Investigators requested it from the Department of Education, the agency tasked with collecting the bus data.

School districts are required to report only a few details, and LaRocco said it’s on the honor system.

"We don’t have any way of knowing for sure if an incident happens unless it gets reported," said LaRocco.

The state has no punishment in place for schools who fail to disclose when a child is left alone on the bus.

"We’ve had a couple districts that didn't submit a report, mainly because they didn't have the knowledge that says, 'Hey, we have to report,'" said LaRocco.

LaRocco declined to reveal which school districts failed to report, but said the state emailed school administrators notifying them about the law.

State Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, co-sponsored the bus bill and said he is open to tweaking the law.

"There's always room for improvement," said Behning. "No children should be left on a school bus, regardless of the situation, so yes, I am disappointed. You know one or two, I could understand, I think that’s a little high."

As lawmakers consider possible tweaks to the law, school districts told RTV6 they are taking extra steps to keep children safe.

In Brownsburg, transportation officials use a dummy named "Will" to keep drivers on their toes.

"When drivers do their final check, they find Will. They get to bring him in and they get a candy bar or some treat,” said Petraits.

Elling wants schools to make checking their buses for children a top priority.
"It’s something I don't take lightly, and I just hope the people the school hires know their stuff," said Elling.

The Call 6 Investigators contacted school districts and bus companies to find out what happened to the bus drivers.

Although some wouldn't say, of those that did, 55 percent of bus drivers who left a child alone lost their jobs or resigned, and 45 percent were disciplined in some way and kept their jobs.

Though parents can't find out online if a child has been left by their bus driver, they can request that information directly from the state Department of Education.

Residents can also ask a school district whether a child’s bus driver has had any incidents.

Parents should talk to their children about bus behavior and encourage them not to sleep on the school bus.

More -- Perry Township Full Statement:

"The law that went into effect July 1, 2009 requiring school districts to report children left on buses did not change the stance of Perry Township Schools. In MSD of Perry Township, we have always taken this issue very seriously. The safe and secure transportation of our students is and always has always been our expectation. We have annual, mandatory training for our bus drivers, reinforcing our policy so that no child will be left unattended on our buses. Every bus in Perry Township Schools is equipped with a child reminder system, the button you referenced in your email. Please see the attachment for the MSDPT policy on post bus trip inspection guidelines."

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