BAILEYVILLE, Maine — On Tuesday, the temperature hovered a degree above freezing, and a cold drizzle dampened Washington County.
Left by a substitute school bus driver at his locked, empty home instead of his day care, a 5-year-old Baileyville boy waited outside for three hours in the rain and dark until his mother arrived home from work. He ended up with a frostbitten ear and a fear of leaving his mother’s side.
Although school officials say they are dealing with the problem, the boy’s mother, Darlene Donahue, said this is a pattern in her district and she will attend the next school board meeting to express her views.
“I don’t want anyone fired,” she said Thursday. “I don’t want anything except for this to never happen to any other child.”
Donahue said that when she arrived home Tuesday, her son was extremely upset.
“He was soaking wet,” she said. “You could see his little footprints walking all around the house, searching for a way to get in. He could have frozen to death. He could have gone into the woods.”
Donahue, who is a domestic violence caseworker, had been in Steuben on an emergency call before she headed to the day care to pick up her son. “I got to my son’s day care at 5:30 and he wasn’t there,” she said.
The day care provider told Donahue that when the child didn’t get off the bus, she immediately called the school, Woodland Elementary, which has about 100 pupils. She was told he was sent home and assumed Donahue had made the arrangements.
But Donahue had not.
“He was supposed to go to the day care,” the mother said. “He’s 5 years old and he had been home for three hours all by himself. It was dark. He was soaked. He was hysterical.”
Donahue said her child was so frightened that she had to take him to work with her on Wednesday. “He wouldn’t let me out of his sight,” she said.
Donahue notified school officials Tuesday evening and they immediately launched an investigation, Superintendent Barry McLaughlin said Thursday. He said a second child also was dropped off at an empty house instead of with a caregiver that same night. Details about that incident were not made available. McLaughlin said the incidents occurred because a substitute bus driver was not familiar with the families’ work schedules.
“I’m not making excuses,” he said. “This is inexcusable. I accept full responsibility. We made a mistake.”
McLaughlin said school officials, teachers and the bus driver were mortified that the child had been left alone.
“School people try so hard to have practices in place to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen,” he said. “The most serious job we have is the safety of the children.”
McLaughlin said the school board also reviewed the issue at their regular meeting Wednesday night.
“We’ve had practices in place that for the most part seemed to be working well,” he said. “But now they are going to be reviewed and put in writing.”
He said the regular driver had a family emergency and the substitute did not have the information needed to take the child to day care. There will be no censure of the substitute driver, he said, because the information was not available to that driver.
“The best we can do now is learn from this and do better,” he said.
Donahue, however, said she will attend the next board meeting. She said she personally knows about a half-dozen incidents in which children, all under the age of 6, were left at home alone instead of with a caregiver.
“I’m pushing this because I know it is not an isolated incident,” she said. “This is [part of] a pattern.”
On Thursday, Baileyville Police Chief Phil Harriman confirmed that Donahue had filed an official complaint with his department concerning the incident. Harriman said he was investigating whether any laws were broken.