Firing of bus drivers sought

Senators upset about 2 children who were forgotten

`We deserve to be angry'

February 18, 2000|By David Nitkin and Lynn Anderson | David Nitkin and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Furious that young children have been left inside parked school buses twice in the past month, Baltimore County state senators said yesterday that those responsible should be fired.

"It should be you. You should be fired," said an angry Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, pointing a finger at schools transportation director Rita Fromm.

Fromm was called to Annapolis yesterday to testify before a meeting of the county Senate delegation about the two incidents, the most recent of which involved a 4-year-old Rosedale child on Monday. Her explanation didn't sit well with lawmakers.

The transportation director blamed the incidents on drivers being distracted as they completed their routes. "There was a break in their normal routine," she said.

Both drivers received five-day suspensions, but lawmakers said that the standard punishment should be firing.

"I think if people are fearful for their job, they might be a little more careful," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat and the delegation's chairman. "Something strong needs to be in the message."

Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore City Democrat, said the drivers were being treated more leniently than if a parent had left a child in a car.

"These bus drivers are guilty of child neglect," Della said. "The law is clear."

School officials probably will at least consider suggestions by lawmakers to beef up punishment for bus drivers or attendants who fail to check buses for children, said schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon. And with lawmakers scheduled to vote in coming weeks on millions of dollars in state aid for schools, there's a good chance their recommendations will be listened to.

"We want to be responsive to legislators' and the public's concerns," said Herndon, adding that school officials are still shaken by both incidents.

Vance Parks, a 4-year-old pre-kindergarten pupil at Red House Run Elementary School in Rosedale, was left alone on an empty bus for about 15 minutes Monday afternoon. Workers found him asleep on the bus at about 1: 20 p.m. at the bus lot in Rosedale. Vance, whose parents will meet with school officials today, was unharmed.

Last month, Malik Lucas, a 3-year-old special education pupil at Halstead Academy elementary school near Hillendale, was left on a Baltimore County school bus for about four hours.

A child gets left on a school bus about once or twice every year, Fromm said earlier this week, and the problem is not confined to Baltimore County.

Herndon said, "We've done everything we can to keep this sort of thing from happening. Our emphasis isn't so much in punishing those responsible, but preventing it from happening in the first place."

Fromm uses department newsletters to remind bus drivers and attendants to make post-trip inspections.

She has suggested fitting new school buses with devices that emit a loud buzz every time a school bus engine is turned off. Drivers would be required to walk to the back of the bus to turn off the buzzers.

Fromm also has said she encourages bus drivers and attendants to know the children they pick up and to count heads as pupils enter and exit buses. However, that is more difficult in areas where children move often. Also, parents contribute to the confusion when they drive their children to or from school themselves sometimes.

But yesterday, lawmakers weren't accepting any excuses.

"This is not rocket science to keep track of when kids get on and when they get off," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore City Democrat. "If you consider the students to be your customers, you're not showing it."

John Sgroi, 39, whose daughter attends Red House Run Elementary, said, "We put our kids on the bus, and we expect the bus driver to make sure they get home safely."

Sgroi's mother was a bus attendant with the county for about 23 years. She never left a child on the bus alone, he said. "Now we've had two incidents in the past three or four weeks."

Bromwell wasn't convinced there won't be more.

"We deserve to be angry. We deserve to have your head here," he said during the hearing. "I see no solution to this problem."

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