BAILEYVILLE, Maine — The Baileyville school board called itself “heartbroken” Tuesday night in the wake of a mid-December incident when a 5-year-old was left at his home alone by his school bus driver and waited outside in near freezing rain and dark for three hours.
The child, Shawn Donahue Jr., was dropped off at home instead of his day care facility, an incident that has prompted the Baileyville school board to review and revise its bus policy.
Donahue’s father, Shawn Donahue, told the five school board members Tuesday night what his son, a pupil at Woodland Elementary School, endured that day. Shawn Donahue is a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and was away at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy when his son was dropped off at home. The youngster’s mother, Darlene Donahue, was working out of town and no one was at the house.
“My job takes a lot of courage,” Shawn Donahue told the board, his voice cracking with emotion. “But I will never have the courage my son had that day.”
After the bus driver — a substitute driver who was filling in that day — dropped Shawn Donahue Jr. off, the 5-year-old struggled to find a way into the locked home. Weighing just 40 pounds, he pulled the screen door off the molding; he took a shovel to the back door and tried to break it down; he attempted to dig underneath a garage door.
“You could see his butt print in the ice on the back step,” Donahue Sr. said. “He spent three hours trying to get into that house.”
Darlene Donahue was shocked not to find her son at his day care when she finished work as a domestic abuse counselor. Her provider told Donahue that she had called the school and was told that the child was to be brought home that day.
Donahue said she never left those instructions with the school. She said she had said that her son was to be dropped at day care every day that week.
When she arrived home, she found Donahue Jr. soaking wet, hysterical, shaking and shivering.
Donahue Jr. was left with frostbite on his ear and cheek and a serious sinus infection, and he still has nightmares, according to his father.
“We are looking for accountability,” Donahue Sr. said. “I’m here because I know you will take care of it.”
The Donahues were joined at the meeting by the parents of another child. Jocelyn Storey said her 5-year-old daughter had been dropped off at incorrect addresses eight times. She said that just recently her daughter failed to get on the bus because she wanted to stay at school for karate.
“She doesn’t take karate,” Storey said. “But no one noticed she wasn’t at day care or on the bus until she wandered into the principal’s office, two hours later.”
The Donahues and Storey said the incidents are part of a pattern of sloppy, irresponsible acts that are putting the Woodland children, particularly the youngest ones, in danger. Darlene Donahue said that a dozen other parents have told her of similar incidents but that they were uncomfortable coming before the school board.
Woodland Elementary Principal Jane Smith addressed the Donahues directly Tuesday night, apologizing for what happened to their son.
“I wish I could undo that terrible thing that happened,” Smith said.
She said the experience forced school officials to scrutinize their bus policy and how they handle parents’ directives. “We had a good plan,” she stated. “Now we have a better one.”
Smith and Superintendent Barry McLaughlin said that in the wake of the December incident, all bus drivers are required to see a parent or caretaker before dropping off any child in pre-kindergarten to second grade.
“If no one is home, that child will be brought back to the school,” Smith said.
All parents have been notified of the policy, Smith said, and a new log has been created in the school office. Each time a parent calls in with directions about where a child is to be dropped off, it is logged in. That list and information are then passed to the classroom teacher and the bus drivers.
One board member, however, Scott Harriman, expressed concern that even that system is flawed.
“I have a problem with taking phone calls at the school and not knowing who we are talking to,” he said.
Smith countered that Woodland Elementary School “is blessed to be in a small community. So far, we recognize the voices when they call in.”
McLaughlin said that along with those additional procedures, each bus driver has been asked to assess the individual routes for all students to determine where homes cannot be seen by the driver from the road.
“Our purpose is not to point fingers or assess blame,” McLaughlin said. “Our purpose is to fix it. We will leave no stone unturned.”
McLaughlin encouraged any parent with suggestions or ideas for simplifying and improving the bus policy to contact him, Smith or the board.
“We need to try to learn from this and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” McLaughlin said.
“There isn’t a person here that wasn’t heartbroken over this,” Harriman said.