Eleven special-needs TUSD students were forced to wait outside for rides when their bus broke down because school officials were afraid they would disrupt an after-school program underway inside.
Parents were not notified of the incident, leaving at least one mother panicked as she called around the Tucson Unified School District in search of her 6-year-old, nonverbal daughter.
Haley Stonechek, a first-grader at Bloom Elementary School, has ridden TUSD buses to and from school since she was a 3-year-old preschooler. Over the last three years, Haley’s mother, Lesa, has had her fair share of complaints about TUSD’s transportation system, but Tuesday’s incident was the most severe, she said.
The idea that children were kept outside because they are disabled is appalling, Stonechek said.
“It’s not acceptable and it’s inexcusable,” Stonechek said. “There’s no reason why any child should be treated that way. I really would like someone to be held accountable.”
In a statement to the Arizona Daily Star, TUSD said it regrets the incident.
When asked why the students were not allowed to wait inside, district spokeswoman Cara Rene said in a written response that “the supervisor vans arrived later than anticipated.”
She pointed out the students waited in a shaded area and had access to indoor restrooms and water, and were under adult supervision at all times.
The district statement offered no explanation for why the students could not wait inside.
Mother left in the dark
Part of Haley’s after-school trek involves a stop at the nearby Steele Elementary School, where she and other students transfer to a bus that takes them home. Her drop-off time is 2:40 p.m., Lesa Stonechek said, but it’s not uncommon for the bus to run 10 to 15 minutes late.
When the bus hadn’t arrived by 3:15, Stonechek called the transportation department, which told her the bus had broken down and was still at Bloom. Stonechek asked why she was not notified, and the transportation department said that was the responsibility of the school.
Stonechek called Bloom and was told her daughter was not there, that she was likely at Steele. The Bloom employee attempted to call Steele, but no one answered.
Stonechek called TUSD transportation again and was told there were actually two buses that broke down and that a van was going to pick Haley up and bring her home.
Rather than wait, Stonechek drove to Steele to see if she could find Haley herself. She was concerned because it was almost 4 p.m. and her daughter suffers from a medical condition that does not allow her to be outdoors for prolonged periods.
In the past, Haley has been hospitalized for dehydration issues, her mother said.
Upon arriving, Stonechek came across the principal, who said there were no students there. She looked for her daughter and found her overheated, but in good condition, from standing out in the 85-degree weather for hours.
Shortly thereafter, Stonechek got a call from transportation notifying her of Haley’s location.
Rene explained, “Unfortunately, the dispatcher delayed notifying the call center so parents could be contacted in a timely fashion. This is not the expected procedure.”
TUSD sent vans to pick the children up but were able to take only six on the first trip, leaving five others, including Haley, behind. They were left under the supervision of a bus monitor, who Stonechek said “went out of her way to make sure the children were cared for.”
Stonechek had yet to be contacted by anyone from TUSD, she said Wednesday.
Rene said the district will review the incident to make sure proper procedures were followed.
Stonechek said she would like the procedure to include a requirement that parents be notified of significant delays to give them the option of picking their children up on their own.
Stonechek also said any school that serves as a bus transfer stop should have someone available to answer the phone while kids are being moved from one bus to another.