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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/14/2009

SPOTLIGHT: Getting Kids Home Safely From School

By Valerie Strauss

The story of a 5-year-old who got lost after he was mistakenly put on a school bus and left in an unfamiliar Alexandria neighborhood raises questions about how much responsibility schools should have to make sure that youngsters get home safely.

The woman who reunited Gavin Salinas with his mom on Oct. 5, after he was found by two other boys walking the streets crying, said that the kindergartener is not the only youngster who gets off the bus without an adult waiting at the stop.

According to Thelma Oliver, manager of Brookside Apartments at 601 Four Mile Road, children who live in the 165-unit complex sometimes get off the school bus and come to her office to wait for a parent to return home. She doesn’t know if they are in kindergarten or first grade, but, she said, “The kids are very small.”

In the Alexandria City Public School district, which includes Gavin’s school, Mount Vernon Community, it actually makes a difference whether a child is in kindergarten or 1st grade when it comes to transportation rules.

Amy Carlini, executive director of communications for the district, said bus drivers are not permitted to allow a kindergarten student off a school bus unless an authorized adult is there to pick him up.

Starting in first grade, though, it is up to parents to make sure their children aren’t left alone, because bus drivers are no longer required to supervise them. Many of them still, though, watch out for the kids, and sometimes will bring a student back to school if something looks out of the ordinary. It is not clear why there is a policy for kindergarteners but not for first-graders, who are still pretty young.

In Gavin Salinas’s case, the driver who let him off the bus on Oct. 5 about a mile from his home was only one of several adults who made mistakes. Though Gavin was supposed to stay after school for a class, a teacher mistakenly put him on a bus, and the driver let him get off with other children.

Gavin started to cry and walk down the street, when two young boys brought him to Oliver. She said she had seen the young heroes, but did not know them. She found the name of Gavin’s in his backpack, and called. Someone there improperly gave her contact information for Gavin’s mother rather than calling the youngster’s parents, and Taryn Salinas raced from her job in the District to get him.

Carlini said the bus driver “didn’t know Gavin was a kindergartener,” but acknowledged that was just one of the “many mistakes” made that day.

Officials for several school systems said parents are responsible for getting their children home from a bus stop, though bus drivers are supposed to use judgment about when to allow a young child to get off.

Montgomery County leaves it entirely up to parents, a spokesman said. In Loudoun County, transportation chief Alvin Hampton said the situation is similar but not identical: The school system has half-day kindergarten, and youngsters taken home in the middle of the day must be greeted by an adult.

“With parents working the way they do, some can’t be there in the morning for pickup and some can’t be there in the afternoon either,” he said.

Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman Paul Regnier said he believes the district’s rules are the same as Alexandria’s. Drivers are encouraged to be mindful of young children and bring back to school any child who may not want to get off the bus or whose parent is doesn’t show up at the bus stop, he said.

The Answer Sheet understands that school systems do not have the resources to ensure that kids get home safely and that parents must accept that responsibility.

But it IS the school district’s responsibility to ensure that young children get on the right buses at the end of the school day; that kids aren’t mistakenly put on buses when they are supposed to be picked up at school; that intersessions at year-round schools, when children may not be with their regular teachers, are not disorganized and chaotic; that there are enough bus stops so children don’t have to walk too far; and that drivers make some attempt to ensure that they are not leaving anybody stranded.

One case of a lost child is one too many.

There is a broader problem. What speaks loudly about our priorities is our refusal to turn our public schools into real community centers--where parents could get adult education,, where kids could safely and productively stay after school, where families could go for health services.

Today the majority of two-parent U.S. families have both parents working. Many need to work and don’t have extra money for after-school too. So they are dependent on friends, relatives, siblings, and babysitters who themselves may not always be available.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that turning our schools into safe community centers would be a better alternative to what we have today.

We were, in fact, just reminded of what an unfriendly country this is to children in a report called “Doing Better for Children” by the European-based organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It showed that the United States ranked 25th out of 30 industrialized countries in educational well-being, 24th in health and safety, 14th in the quality of school life and had nearly double the rate of child poverty than other developed nations.

Other studies have shown that the United States lags behind many countries when it comes to countries creating family-oriented workplace policies, as well as offering maternity leave for women.

But we don’t really need reports to tell us what we already know, do we?

Please tell us about any problems you have encountered with your school district’s transportation system.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 14, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  Gavin Salinas, child safety, school bus drivers, school dismissal policy  
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Next: Getting Kids To and From School Safely--Part 2

Comments

My son has to cross a busy street to get to his bus stop. Not only is it busy, the bus stops just before a small incline on the road. Therefore the cars coming from the opposite direction cannot see the bus, and the bus stop sign, in time to actually stop. Several times cars have sped by the bus. I have contacted the school's transportation department about this problem, but due to school boundary issues they cannot change the bus stop to our side of the street. They said if they make an exception for us then everyone would want a bus stop change. There has a been time when I was not quite at the stop yet, but saw my son try to cross the street himself but instead had a car pass right by him. At last, the only safe option that I saw was to pick up my son from school myself. I still have him go on the bus in the mornings, as I can walk him across the street then.

Posted by: uvas22 | October 15, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

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