The mother of a 4-year-old Riverhead boy was blindsided last Thursday when her son said his minibus driver left him unattended in a bus parked in the Riverhead School District’s lot.
In an interview Saturday, Kashina Brown said the district was less than forthcoming with information after her son, Elijah, arrived home 35 minutes late from his pre-K program at Phillips Avenue Elementary School. Conversations with the bus driver, the transportation department and assistant superintendent Sam Schneider failed to immediately reveal that her son had mistakenly been left behind, Ms. Brown said. Only after Elijah described what happened did she understand the potential danger he’d been in.
“I just want to make the parents in the community aware,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t know this has happened. It’s important for them to know.”
The ordeal began just after noon last Thursday when Elijah’s grandmother, Cheryl Nash, became concerned that his bus had not yet arrived. It typically pulled down her street, about a mile and a half from the school, at 11:50 a.m. After waiting by her mailbox for more than 10 minutes, she called her daughter at work in Ronkonkoma.
Ms. Brown said she then contacted her son’s teacher, who indicated there had been no dismissal delay. Her next call, at about 12:10 p.m., was to the bus garage, where she was placed on hold and then told Elijah would be home shortly. When she asked what the problem was, she was told the bus driver could not be reached.
“Which is a little confusing, because how would you know he’s going to be home shortly?” Ms. Brown said.
Moments later, at 12:25 p.m., while she was relaying that information to Ms. Nash by phone, the bus arrived to drop Elijah off. Only about five children ride that bus and Elijah’s is the last stop, Ms. Brown said.
“My mother said [to the bus driver], ‘We were in a panic. What happened?’” she said.
The bus driver reportedly said that new students had been on the bus and there had been a discrepancy with the drop-off location. The driver never mentioned leaving Elijah, a quiet, reserved boy, sitting unattended on the bus, Ms. Brown said.
Within a few minutes of Elijah’s return, both Ms. Brown and Ms. Nash said they received calls from Mr. Schneider asking if the boy had gotten home safely. Those calls struck them as odd: Why would the assistant superintendent call personally just because the bus had been late?
Ms. Nash then asked her grandson what had happened.
“He said the bus driver got off the bus and then she went to her white car and went inside the big building,” Ms. Nash said. “That’s when all the red flags went up.”
Elijah, unsure what was happening as he sat on the bus, told his grandmother that he started to cry because he thought he wasn’t going to her house.
Ms. Nash immediately called her daughter, who in turn phoned Mr. Schneider.
“I said, ‘My son told me this story,’ ” she said. “At that point he said, ‘Ms. Brown, I’m sorry, your son was left on the bus.’ And I immediately broke down.”
Mr. Schneider, she said, appeared concerned and apologetic -— and unaware that the bus driver had told a conflicting story.
In a written response to questions from the News-Review, Mr. Schneider acknowledged the incident but declined to provide any details.
“A student was left on one of our school buses for a very brief period of time,” Mr. Schneider wrote. “The student was not hurt and we have been in repeated communication with the parents of that student. We are now in the process of dealing with a personnel issue related to that occurrence.”
Amala Cain, the district’s director of transportation, could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered the phone for the transportation department referred comment to the district office and Mr. Schneider. The woman, who declined to give her name, cited confidentiality, saying she was not allowed to discuss a particular case.
Ms. Brown said Mr. Schneider told her last Thursday that the bus driver would be disciplined. A different driver picked up the bus route Friday. Ms. Brown, a 1996 Riverhead High School graduate who also has a 10-year-old daughter in the district, said she has not heard from any district officials since Mr. Schneider called Friday to check on Elijah. She plans to have a lawyer submit a letter to the school district asking what disciplinary action was taken against the driver.
“My preference is for her to lose her job,” she said. “We’re entrusting you with the safety of our kids.”
Ms. Nash took a softer stance, saying that the bus driver should be disciplined, but not fired.
“To me, everyone lied about the whole scenario,” she said. “That’s where the bitterness comes in.”
According to state education guidelines, school bus drivers are required to check their vehicles at the end of a route to ensure no child is left behind. At the end of the day Monday, some buses parked at the Riverhead barn had signs posted on them saying “This bus has been checked for sleepers.”
Ms. Brown said she is thankful Elijah made it home OK, saying similar cases don’t always end well. Earlier this month in California, according to media reports, a 19-year-old student with special needs died after being left for hours on a bus. The high temperature was 89 degrees in Riverhead last Thursday.
Elijah started the pre-K program Sept. 8, his first experience attending school. His mother said the program is funded through the State Education Department and is not run by the school district. However, the district does provide transportation.
Next year, Elijah will attend kindergarten at Phillips Avenue.
“He’s very excited,” Ms. Brown said. “He loves his teacher.”
Photo: A 4-year-old boy was mistakenly left behind on a minibus last Thursday afternoon and brought back to the Riverhead School District’s bus barn. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)