Anchorage school busing protocols under scrutiny after 6-year-old was left at wrong stop

The child, who only recently began riding the school bus, was found on board at the end of the driver’s route
A view of one of the Anchorage School District's many bus routes, featuring icy roads and lots...
A view of one of the Anchorage School District's many bus routes, featuring icy roads and lots of snow, between back-to-back snowstorms in December of 2022.(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 20, 2022 at 11:11 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As the Anchorage School District grapples with closing a multimillion-dollar budget gap, it has spent much of its time working on major issues with transportation: the school year started with a shortage of drivers; weather and road conditions became part of the reasoning behind multiple inclement weather days, which kept kids from school beyond the amount allotted for this year; and now, the district is facing issues with its end-of-route protocol, which last week left a 6-year-old boy wandering the streets of Eagle River and its featured high traffic and snow berms.

“I was terrified,” said Heather Painter, the mother of the child who was inadvertently dropped off at the wrong stop. “You know, looking at the app, moving so slowly, I was having to come up with explanations as to why it might be happening, so I wouldn’t have to worry so much and so that gut-wrenching feeling wouldn’t — so I wouldn’t lose control.”

Painter, pointing to a smartphone app, has a GPS tracker on her youngster, which was what allowed her to see exactly where he was, and wasn’t.

“I noticed he started taking a long time to get from this neighborhood over here, which is not our neighborhood,” the boy’s dad, Darrel Maillelle, said, adding that he “almost broke down” when he was reunited with his son.

“We live on the other side of the road, and he walked all over ... And then he walked all the way to the light down there by Taco Bell, crossed that street, and another bus driver saw him and thought he was a 3-year-old walking,” Maillelle said. “So she stopped, picked him up and had him in the bus until APD came, because she called APD.”

District Maintenance and Operations Director Rob Holland explained Monday that the driver involved — who discovered Painter’s son to still be on board the bus at the end of the line — followed most of the end-of-route protocol, except for a crucial step that was missed. Instead of calling the school or the district bus dispatch line to confirm which stop the student was meant to go to, Holland said, the driver asked the child, who ended up mistakenly responding with the incorrect location.

“The driver got his end-of-the-route buzzer, walked the aisle to check the seats,” Holland said. “(He) found one child left on the bus, addressed that child, ‘What’s your name?’ etc., engaged with the child, asked the child the name of the bus stop. The child responded with a stop that is on the route, then that driver doubled back to that stop, asked the child if they know the way home from there, got an affirmative answer, and let the child off the bus.”

Holland, though, said he recognizes the error and the trauma it may have caused both the parents involved and those who rely on ASD transportation to get their children to and from school.

“Fortunately, nothing tragic had happened, so there was relief in that,” Holland said. “But from there, it’s concern about what we do, investigate, communicate, tighten up the process, of course, because a situation like this just doesn’t go unresolved. There needs to be an action plan, there needs to be counseling, there needs to be training, whenever anything like this happens in any one of our systems.”

The driver isn’t a new hire, Holland said, and the driver filed an incident report upon realizing what had happened.

However, the student’s parents remain concerned — their worries were amplified by the traffic, the plows, the huge snow berms, and the possibility of a stranger with bad intentions having gotten involved — and want to know exactly what the district is going to do differently for the future.

“An apology is not enough,” Painter said, adding that her boy was walking for about 30 minutes before being picked up by a different school bus driver, she said, and getting police involved. “My child’s life was at risk.”

Painter and Maillelle said they are both grateful that their son was brought back to them, safe and sound.

Holland said the driver involved felt terrible about the incident and that though the end-of-route protocol is part of every driver’s training, this is all being shared with every one of the district’s drivers so that they all are freshly reminded of the steps to take when kids are discovered onboard at the end of their routes, so that the children are guaranteed to get home safely.