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Posted at 12:41 PM ET, 10/29/2009

Mom takes on critics over who is responsible for kids after school

By Valerie Strauss

A lot of you had strong opinions about a letter that a mom in Montgomery County wrote to the transportation department of the school system about a bus policy that does not call for a bus driver to return a very young child back to school if an adult is not at the bus stop. Some of you thought they should. Others didn't.

I printed Melanie Klein's letter after a story about a 5-year-old, Gavin Salinas, was mistakenly put on a school bus in Alexandria by a teacher and then let off in a neighborhood he did not know. Since then, changes have been made to the bus system in Alexandria.

Here is her response to your comments:

By Melaine Klein
Children should learn to be self-reliant step-by-step, given their individual strengths and weaknesses, and their circumstances. Does the foster child who is in his ninth placement of the school year, and his ninth school, know his way “home”? How many “trusted neighbors” does he know? What about the child with special needs?
What if the child left at home alone sets the whole house on fire or cuts his finger off?

Just because we’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t make it right, or the best way.

Children who’ve been left unsupervised before they were ready have drowned, been run over, molested, and shot and killed themselves, siblings, and friends. These incidents may be relatively rare, but accidents are the leading cause of death in children, and most perpetrators of sexual abuse know their victims; they’re relatives, friends, or “trusted neighbors.”

Gavin Salinas was so traumatized he forgot his last name, his mother’s name, and his phone number. A child’s emotional state affects his ability to remember vital information even more than an apparently “rational” adult. Have none of you ever forgotten an important piece of information in the midst of a crisis?

Everyone does not have a panoply of trusted neighbors at their disposal. How long have your neighbors lived in your neighborhood? How well do you know them? How much do you trust them? What if you really can trust your neighbor, but he’s at the grocery store, or out-of-town on business?

How is the parent supposed to know the sitter didn’t show? Is a 5-year-old supposed to carry a cell phone? What if she forgets it at school? (In fact, there’s a “policy” against elementary school kids bringing cell phones to school.) What if the bus driver doesn’t have a cell phone, or doesn’t let your child use it (since it’s not “the policy”)?

Everyone’s situation is different, and the most well-thought-out plans fall through.

Sitters cancel, you can’t reach them, or they aren’t available at the last minute. Former stay-at-home parents now work. If they don’t live in the neighborhood, they’d have to come up with a booster seat for your child or a key to your house. It’s illegal for your child to ride in the car without one until he’s 8, 80 pounds, or 4’9”.

How many people should have your key? What if the parent has a stroke, no one knows, and she doesn’t meet the bus? Then would it be OK for the school system to at least consider discussing some alternatives to dumping her child by the side of the road?

Afterschool programs vary in quality, hours, and cost. They may not be right for every child. Are they available at every school? Gavin Salinas wasn’t even supposed to be on the bus in the first place, but in an afterschool program; schools make mistakes, too.

I agree that it would not be easy and perhaps would be costly to adopt and implement a different policy. But how much would it cost for a driver to carry a clipboard that says “this kid can be let out unattended. This kid is supposed to be met by a parent.” How much time would it take to check that clipboard?

Are we really saying that a 5-year-old child should know the way home, but an adult cannot be expected to ask the name of a child exiting his bus?

I would like to have seen Montgomery County Public Schools respond “we are reviewing our policies in response to your concern.”

Neither Shirley Brandman, the President of the School Board, or Jerry Weast, the Superintendent of Schools, both of whom I copied my letter to, bothered to respond. To implicitly (and explicitly, in the case of Todd Watkins, Director of Transportation for MCPS) stand by this policy without consideration of any alternatives is profoundly unsatisfying. I expected more from what is considered to be one of the finest public school systems in the country.

I note that the answer I received from Mr. Watkins stated, “if a bus operator recognizes that a student may be having some difficulty, they have the option of returning that child to the school.” I believe this should be the written policy, not an unwritten “option” which may or may not be exercised.

The “right” to ride the school bus is an MCPS policy: “Students attending their home school who reside beyond the distances defined below will receive transportation services.” This same policy states “while riding the bus, students are on school property.”

When is school “over?” MCPS’s Student Rights and Responsibilities states “Discipline may be imposed for offenses involving school activities outside of the regular school hours, including on a school bus or at a bus stop. If you do things outside of school that are related to school (for example, harassing a teacher or fighting with a student while walking home), school authorities may talk with your parents/guardians about it or take disciplinary action.”

So, the school can discipline your child if he misbehaves on her way home from the bus, but refuses any responsibility for his physical safety?


I think Melanie Klein makes an excellent argument that school systems should allow kids to be returned to school if they want to or the bus driver realizes a young child would be left alone. What's your take?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 29, 2009; 12:41 PM ET
Categories:  Montgomery County Public Schools, Parents  | Tags:  bus policy  
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Next: Should sick kids have to make up all missed school work?


Sorry, I think this mom has even more of a screw loose now than I did before. She immediately trots out the same old parade of horribles everyone always brings out whenever something that they believe is related to the safety of children comes up. None of those awful things are (a) any more prevalent now than it ever was; (b) more likely to happen to children who walk home from the bus stop alone than those who don't; or (c) at all relevant to her situation. Her child (about whom she is so concerned but who she has not made sure knows her way home from her own bus stop) is not 5, she is 7 or 8. She is not a foster child, she is not special needs. SHe was never placed on a bus that she wasn't supposed to be on and was not let off at a stop she wasn't supposed to be let off at. A 7 or 8 year old second grader dropped off at her own bus stop should know how to get home. That child should know what to do if mommy, daddy, or the babysitter aren't there when she gets there. Yes, the "trusted" neighbor might be a child molester. So might mommy, daddy, the babysitter, the teacher, the bus driver, the doctor, the nurse, a friend's mommy or daddy, grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, that guy in the store . . . Mommy, Daddy, or the babysitter are just as likely to have a stroke when home alone with the child, what then? Is mom arguing that all children should be brought up in an isolated cell monitored 24-hours a day just in case?

The demand that schools go to special trouble and expense just so a developmentally normal second grader won't have to learn a modicum of common sense and independence before her mommy is ready to teach it to her is ridiculous and self-centered. If mom wants to avoid such situations, she should not allow her daughter to take the bus at all. That way, if something does happen, the child will already be at school - the bus driver won't have to keep track of which children are allowed off the bus unaccompanied and which aren't, the driver won't have to take an extra trip back to the school, and you won't have to worry that all the teachers have gone home for the day when the bus finally makes its way back. OR you can just keep whining about how we should do whatever it takes "for the children," when what you really mean is that everyone else should do whatever it takes for YOU and YOUR children.

Posted by: burntnorton | October 29, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

My kids started in the DC suburban public schools in 1st and 3rd grades; they were at the time 5 and 7. Being beyond the prescribed distance, they were assigned to the appropriate bus. Since the distance was perfectly walkable and the neighborhood safe, they (with my permission) often walked in good weather. Either of them was perfectly capable of doing so on their own and they knew which houses, other than ours, were likely to have an available adult, should they encounter a problem. The also knew their address, home phone, dad's work phone etc. Both of them would have been embarrassed had it been otherwise. This was before cell phones, email etc. as well. Kids can be taught the skills necessary for independence, but parents must do it.

Posted by: momof4md | October 29, 2009 8:33 PM | Report abuse

It is the responsibility of the school to get the child to the desiginated bus stop. After that it's the parent's responsibility.

As the writer notes, every child and family is different. A child who for one reason or another can not risk being left unattended at the bus stop should not be in a care arrangement where that is a possibility.

What would the schools do with a returned child? Should every school have a staffer at the ready for a returned child?

The bus is supposed to head back to the bus depot. Perhaps a daycare for returned kids at the bus depot would be a solution.

Imagine the cries if parents had to drive from Takoma to Rockville because they'd missed the bus by 5 minutes! What if a parent doesn't have a car? A frightened child would be at the bus depot for hours.

Should the child go back to school? Will the parent be responsible for paying a school employee to watch their child?

I think a better solution is for parents who aren't sending their kids to afterschool programs with multiple person staffs to consider a cooperative effort.

Each bus stop can survey itself and determine who comes back to the neighborhood in the afternoon. Families with daycare that hinges on one caregiver could network together to back each other up.

This would give at-risk children a home-like setting to wait for their delayed parent. A delayed or missing sitter who could not call a bus stop alternate for help would be pretty rare.

The mission of the schools is to educate children. The responsibility of parents is to care for their children. Not every problem requires the school to solve it.

Posted by: RedBird27 | October 29, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

Look, I know I'm not going to convince those of you who disagree with me. And I wouldn't normally bother to respond to people like burntnorton (and a few others) who have turned this into a personal attack on me and my kids, whom they know nothing about. But I want to make it clear for anyone who might be confused about what I am trying to say - because it concerns me that RedBird27 thinks that I am suggesting that parents would be compelled to go to Rockville to pick up their kids when their preference would be for their children to be left off at their usual stops - this is not about my child (who, for all you know, burntnorton, is, in fact, a foster child or one with special needs). And it's not about what has or hasn't happened to her, but what might happen to her or someone else's child. It's not about what she should or shouldn't know, or what she does or doesn't know, because everyone's child does not, in fact, know what he "should" know, and because we do not all agree on what our children should know, and that is our prerogative as parents.

It is about giving the parent the choice as to whether the school may leave the child unsupervised without the parent's consent or knowledge - or not.

Posted by: moolanie | October 30, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry you feel so attacked, but your response was way over the top, with it's child-molesters-guns-and-matches-around-every-corner nonsense and sudden concern (unexpressed in your initial complaint) about foster children who've been in nine placements in the past school year and special needs children. And for the record, no one ever said parents shouldn't have a choice and no one has deprived them of a choice. If, for whatever reason, you feel that you don't want to take the risk that your child will be left at her own bus stop alone, you can choose not to let her ride the bus at all. It's not that there are no choices, you just don't like the ones you have.

Posted by: burntnorton | October 30, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Years ago my mother (a teacher) was driving home from school after the first day and saw a very young child walking along a country road. She stopped and talked to him, and discovered he was a kindergartener at her school who had missed the bus and decided to walk home. She offered to drive him, but he stated firmly he knew the way and had been told never to get in a car with someone he didn't know. Meantime, the school was frantically searching for their missing kindergartener. A bus returning to school stopped and the driver pretended this was the bus he was supposed to be on, so he got on and the driver took him to the correct address.

It turned out his parents were both deaf and he was used to interpreting for them, including directions when they went somewhere. He really did know how to get home, was walking on the left facing traffic, was not frightened, and would have been just fine--except for the fact that his home was several miles from the school!

Kids can look after themselves much better than some parents think.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 4, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

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