The only grownup on the bus

Drivers have a tough job, but they're paid to be the adult between school and home

May 11, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

The way Maurice McClain tells it, he was driving to his ex-wife's house in the Gwynn Oak area of Baltimore County on Friday afternoon and, approaching that destination, noticed a boy who appeared to be walking home from school. The boy appeared to be about 10 years old, alone and upset. He looked familiar, too, and there was good reason for that: The boy was Mr. McClain's son, Myles, a fifth-grader at Powhatan Elementary School.

This surprised Mr. McClain. Why was Myles walking? He usually takes the bus.

"I put Myles in my car and was told the bus driver forced him to get off the bus at least a half-mile away from his normal stop, for being rude," Mr. McClain says. "I was able to catch up to the bus and discuss this with the driver, who confirmed he did this. I was shocked that, in this time when people go missing, an adult would place a child in danger this way."

To press that point, Mr. McClain, who works in information technology, got on his computer and pulled up an aerial image of the Gwynn Oak area. He charted the route his son would have taken from the spot where Myles said the bus driver had left him to the boy's usual stop. That confirmed the half-mile distance.

Then Mr. McClain went to Maryland's online registry and looked for all known sexual offenders within a one-mile radius of where Myles said he had been left. It's an impressive function of the state's site, and in this case it might have provided a concerned father with even more cause for worry: The state's digital map showed 15 sexual offenders in an area between Woodlawn in the county and Forest Park on the west side of the city. Eleven of them were listed as child sexual offenders.

Mr. McClain complained to his son's principal, who reported on Monday that the bus driver would be switched to another route. Mr. McClain thought about that and found it unsatisfactory: "What if he does this to another child?"

I contacted Baltimore County Public Schools. Charles Herndon, from the communications office, got back to me with the "unofficial version" of events, pending an official report. The additional details "may help put this incident in perspective," Mr. Herndon said, and he offered the following:

"The bus driver says he exchanged words with the child, telling the child that if the child wanted to get off the bus, he could do so. The child stated he wanted to get off the bus. The child got off the bus, along with a group of other children, at an approved bus stop. The bus stop was about a football field's length from the child's normal stop."

Maurice McClain disputes all of that: "Myles stood up, out of his seat, twice. The second time the driver told him he would put him off the bus if he had to talk to him again. My son said, 'OK,' — I believe in a smart, talk-back way — and the bus driver then said, 'You know what, get off the bus now.' My son basically did not have an option. … The kids that got off that bus went directly into their house. My son was abandoned to walk alone, a half-mile to his house."

Mr. Herndon said bus drivers are required to notify the school or superiors if an elementary-age child is let off at a stop other than his usual. "That does not appear to have been done in this case," he said.

So maybe the bus driver gets a reprimand.

But Mr. McClain is now even less satisfied with the response to his complaint. "Hearing the spin actually upsets me," he says. "I understand why they spin, but making it out like my son requested to get off the bus, hung out with a group of kids and walked a few steps home …

"While I don't believe my son did anything other than possibly disobeying an order to be quiet and sit down, I admit that some kids today cause great strain to bus drivers," Mr. McClain says. "However, we pay them to be adults."

Yes, and adults don't leave 10-year-olds on the street to make a point. Such acts of tough love might have been acceptable to parents way back in the good old days, when kids took the bus because they lived too far from school, not because they needed to be protected from predators. But in this age of hyper-information and fear, we should know better.

Listen to Dan Rodricks on Midday, weekdays on WYPR, noon to 2 pm. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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