The long way home

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:53

    WANTAGE-Kayla Van Tassel is just seven years old, but she knows where she lives, and she knew when her school bus driver didn't stop to let her off. The incident happened on Nov. 30. Kayla, a first-grader at the Lawrence School in Wantage got on the school bus to go home like any other afternoon. School officials are still trying to determine exactly what happened next. What no one disputes is that the bus drove past Kayla's house, and, despite her tears, didn't let her off until the last stop on the route. The girl got home safely, but her parents, Getta and Dan Van Tassel, told their story and expressed their outrage to the Wantage Board of Education at last Thursday's meeting. Kayla normally exits the bus at her home stop which is the second one on the route. Dan Van Tassel, Kayla's father, was waiting for her in his driveway at 3:45 p.m. and saw the bus pass by. He then called his wife who was picking up Kayla's little sister. Together they thought that maybe Kayla remained at the Lawrence School with Van Tassel's sister, who is employed there. But after contacting her sister, they soon learned that Kayla was not with her and had probably left the school. Van Tassel then phoned a neighbor whose son got off at the first stop and verified that Kayla was definitely on the bus with him. At this point, the Lawrence school contacted the Havens Bus Service. By the time they reached Havens, the bus was back at the garage and empty. The bus driver vaguely remembered dropping off a little blond girl at the last stop. As it turns out, the bus driver passed by the second stop for an unknown reason, according to accounts from passengers on the bus and Will Havens, owner of Havens Bus Service. Kayla said that other children saw her crying and told the bus driver that her stop was missed. The bus driver, who was a first time substitute for that route, continued on his route. The Van Tassels were disturbed that he supposedly ignored the children's request to turn around and did not radio Havens to get further information. "My daughter did not have a note saying that it was okay for her to get off at a different stop," said Van Tassel. Eventually, Kayla got off at the last stop at about 4:10 with another student. The parent of the student thought it was strange that her son, who normally gets off alone, was accompanied by a little girl. The parent, understanding Kayla's story, proceeded to get in her car with Kayla and drove her back to the Lawrence school so that Kayla could backtrack via the bus route to the second stop. Kayla arrived home safely at 4:45. "A substitute bus driver who is driving a route for the first time cannot expect to know every child and every face," said Havens. "Sometimes we don't receive the lists, and sometimes they are not accurate. In this case, the driver had the list, but didn't look at it, and I don't know why." Havens confirmed that the driver failed company protocol by not checking the log of stops and coordinating drop-offs that he received by the district. Havens continued, "It is my understanding that the driver expected to take the little girl back afterward to her stop, but instead she got off the bus. This is not a common occurrence but it can happen. The bus driver has been reprimanded." The Van Tassels argue that when they called the bus company after Kayla was found, a Havens spokesperson named Claire blamed Kayla for getting off the bus. The Sussex-Wantage school district owns 15 buses, and a roster of bus drivers are employed by the district. The remaining routes, which make up the majority, are contracted out to two local bus companies: Dunns and Havens. Superintendent of Schools George R. Papp said, "We are comfortable with our bus situation and feel that we have the best of both worlds by owning buses and contracting them as well. This was an unfortunate situation that we never want to happen. I understand the parents' perspective and the panic and anxiety that were placed on them and the child. I hate to see anyone go through that." Papp added that Havens was later contacted and a letter was followed up from the district stating that the driver was not permitted to work for the district. Getta Van Tassel said, "We were fortunate that Kayla got off the bus and a nice family took her home. But we want to be assured that this can't happen again." Added Dan Van Tassel, "We are talking about this because we don't want to see this happen to someone else."