Child missing for 20 minutes

School says bus protocol to change

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Every day when her afternoon kindergarten ends at Allen Brook School, 5-year-old Riley Westover gets on the same bus and gets off at the same stop at her daycare.

On Monday, though, she didn’t. Mark Westover, Riley’s father, got the first phone call from Riley’s daycare teacher.

“ ‘I didn’t know if she was with you,’” Mark said he heard over the phone. He confirmed she wasn’t.

Did his wife, Sophia, pick her up?

No, it turned out, she was still at work on Shelburne Road in South Burlington. Mark ran upstairs to grab his jacket and headed out the door.

“My first assumption was ‘I don’t know why, but I bet she got off at home,’” Mark said. “I work only a mile and a half from here. Still, the whole way you’re looking at both sides of the road to see if she’s walking.”

Sophia, meanwhile, was at work in tears.

“The first thing that came to mind was that little boy who got off at the right stop and he got abducted,” Sophia said. Thirteen-year-old Ben Ownby disappeared earlier this year in Missouri after getting off his bus. He was found later that week with 15-year-old Shawn Horbeck who’d been abducted four years prior.

“‘I’m 20 minutes away,’” Sophia said she’d thought to herself. “In 20 minutes, anything could happen. Twenty minutes can put them on the ferry. It could put them anywhere.”

“I lost it,” Sophia said.

Before getting on the bus that day, Riley went to see the nurse because she had a headache. The nurse checked her, Riley said, and likely because it was close to the end of the school day, told Riley to head back to class so she could get on the bus and “go home.”

So Riley did.

Riley’s home in a condominium complex is a scheduled bus stop on her regular bus route. But that stop comes before her regular stop at daycare. Riley’s regular bus driver was out that day. Riley got off with about three other kids, she said, including a friend. She went home, but nobody was there.

So she stood outside. A neighbor asked her to come inside to keep warm; with the wind chill, it was about 12 degrees below zero Monday afternoon. But Riley’s parents had always told her not to go into strangers’ homes. So Riley said “no.”

When Mark arrived, the neighbor was standing outside with a blanket wrapped around Riley’s not-quite-3-1/2-foot frame. The director of Riley’s daycare, who’d hopped into her car to start looking as soon as she learned Riley was missing, drove in behind Mark.

Mark went inside to call his wife at work; she’d already left. Neither parent has a cell phone, so the only way Mark could communicate that Riley was safe was to find Sophia. He tried the daycare first, and then went to Allen Brook.

“As soon as they walked through the door, I just dropped to my knees and started crying and crying,” Sophia said.

Allen Brook School Principal John Terko said a new protocol already is being put into place for substitute bus drivers. A staff member is creating a clipboard for each bus with students’ names, grades and stops. Substitute bus drivers will be expected to use the clipboard, and ask kindergarteners their names so accurate stops are confirmed.

Terko said this is the first time this school year a student has gotten off at the wrong stop, though it does happen once or twice a year. Humans can and do make mistakes, Terko said, though the school takes every reasonable precaution to prevent incidents like this.

“You don’t drop a kindergartener off unless a parent is there,” Terko said, referring to school bus protocol. If the parents aren’t at the bus stop, Terko said, bus drivers are expected to call into the school. If the school can’t locate the parent at home, the kindergartener is to be brought back to the school.

“The bus drivers certainly at this time of year know their kids,” Terko said. “The dilemma is when there’s a substitute driver who may not know the students or the students may not know the bus driver. Usually there might be a middle school kid who might help out: ‘you need to stop here, ‘ ‘you need to stop here, ‘ ‘this is where Billy lives,’ etc.”

That is not enough, Riley’s parents said, so they are glad the school is enhancing the system.

“I feel good about the initiatives put forward, but it’s always ‘are you going to do it?’” Mark said. “They probably will do it, but what happens two months from now? It’s hard. It’s day-to-day stuff that everybody forgets. But you can’t forget it because you’re dealing with five- and six-year-olds.”