BAR HARBOR, Maine — In the wake of an incident earlier this month in which a local 5-year-old girl was lost for two hours after a school substitute bus driver let her off at the wrong stop, school officials are implementing some changes to try to prevent similar mishaps.
The incident that has prompted the changes happened on Nov. 9 when a substitute bus driver working for Cyr Bus Lines of Old Town, which is contracted to provide student transportation services to the Mount Desert Island school system, let the girl off at the wrong house on Crooked Road, according to Conners Emerson School Principal Barbara Neilly. The school serves children in Bar Harbor from kindergarten through eighth grade.
The bus driver had an outdated list of which pupil was supposed to get off where, Neilly said Monday evening. Earlier in the school year, the girl had been getting off the bus at the home of her baby sitter, which is located about half a mile away from where she lives, but by Nov. 9 the girl had been getting off the bus at her own home for several weeks, the principal said.
The bus driver pulled up to the baby sitter’s house and, though no one was there at the time, told the girl that was where she was supposed to get off, according to the principal. Regardless of whether the bus driver’s drop-off list was accurate, she said, the driver violated policy by not making sure an adult was there to greet her.
“You don’t let a kindergartener off the bus unless a [waiting] adult is visible,” Neilly said.
The girl went inside the house, which was unlocked, and went to sleep, according to Neilly.
Down the road at the girl’s regular stop, her grandmother was waiting when the bus pulled up without her on it. When the grandmother asked the driver where the girl was, the driver could not recall where the girl had gotten off the bus.
“The driver was unclear,” Neilly said.
In the ensuing search, people went to the baby sitter’s house to look for the girl, and someone even opened the front door and called her name, but the girl never responded. It wasn’t until the homeowner arrived home and went inside, two hours later, that the girl was found in the house safe and sound.
Local police officers, state game wardens, firefighters, school staff and others all participated in the “frantic” search for the girl, Neilly said.
A voice mail message left Tuesday for Rick Soules, general manager of Cyr Bus Lines, was not returned. A woman who answered the phone Tuesday at the Old Town company said Soules was out of the office for the day and was the only Cyr official authorized to comment on the incident.
Neilly said she believes the driver has been reprimanded by Cyr officials for not following protocol when he let the girl off the bus. She said the school “routinely” makes phone calls to parents to make sure children are accounted for and that all the school’s buses are equipped with radios that allow drivers to contact the school’s main office at any time.
The substitute driver, she said, should not have let the girl off the bus at the unattended home and should have radioed the school office to find out what to do.
The principal said school officials met with police and the girl’s parents last week, days after the incident, to discuss what had happened and how to prevent similar incidents.
In a letter sent out Nov. 14 to parents, Neilly said the school would pursue several changes to ensure that students get home safely. Those changes include:
• Getting from Cyr a list of student names and home addresses for each bus and providing copies of those lists to the Bar Harbor Police Department.
• Providing local police with the frequencies for the school bus communication radios.
• Updating the school office answering machine to include contact numbers for Cyr and for local police.
• Having each driver note attendance on the bus of each pupil from kindergarten through fourth grade before it departs the school.
• Have kindergarten and first-grade pupils wear identification labels with their home address and phone numbers on them whenever they are on a bus with a substitute driver.
Neilly said Cyr is new to providing student transportation services to the school and is in the first year of a five-year contract to do so.
She said the transition from the school’s prior bus company, First Student, to Cyr has not been smooth. She said there was a prior incident this fall in which another pupil got onto the wrong bus and was dropped off a few blocks short of the local YMCA, his intended destination. That pupil’s parents were waiting for him nearby and spotted him quickly, so no search resulted from that mix-up, she said.
“It’s an ongoing process, until we get this right,” Neilly said of putting measures in place to ensure pupils get to their intended destinations on the appropriate bus. “We will continue to review [Cyr’s] performance.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.