A small group of young West Side Elementary School students found themselves walking roughly seven blocks home after their bus broke down Tuesday afternoon in the St. Therese church parking lot in Johnstown’s West End. Some had to cross Strayer Street to make it home.
Parents and elementary school officials say that shouldn’t have happened.
Greater Johnstown School District and the bus line have stringent protocols that keep children onboard during emergency situations. Young pupils also are supposed to be handed off to a parent or guardian when arriving at the pupil’s stop.
But parents claim that after the bus failure, the matron onboard the West Side Bus J-12, which is contracted by McIlwain Bus Lines, instructed children that they were close enough to walk the rest of the way home.
School officials say it was a matter of “poor judgment.”
“We’re generally happy with McIlwain, but on occasion, the drivers and their matrons make unreasonable decisions that go without training,” said Ray Arcurio, federal program coordinator for Greater Johnstown and a former West Side principal.
“They shouldn’t have let the students off the bus at all,” he said. “Thank God nobody got hurt.”
The driver and matron responsible were not named by the district or McIlwain Bus Lines.
Parents of the Bus J-12 children have begun voicing their concerns to school officials and the bus company. They said this isn’t the first issue they’ve had with this particular bus.
“I don’t want something to happen to one of these kids,” said Robert Rovan of Gregg Avenue, who has two 7-year-olds and a 6-year-old who ride the bus.
At a Wednesday meeting between the J-12 parents and West Side Principal Justin Zahorchak, parents said school administrators were not even aware the bus had broken down.
Tabitha Zeris, whose 5-year-old kindergartner shares the bus stop with Rovan’s kids, said that although the school district was attentive to the parents’ concerns and very apologetic, the bus company was less so.
“Whenever I called McIlwain, they had told me that once the child physically steps off the bus, they are no longer the bus driver’s responsibility,” she said.
Arcurio said that’s not true. In the event of an accident or mechanical failure, drivers are trained to wait at their location for a replacement bus. The driver then continues the route and heads to the next stop.
“That’s district protocol,” Arcurio said, adding, “A parent or guardian has to be at the stop to pick (prekindergarten or kindergarten pupils) up ... otherwise, they bring them back to the school.”
Zeris said the McIlwain employees on J-12 claimed that her 5-year-old chose to walk off the bus after it failed. She said her son is too “well-behaved” to do something without being told first.
And only drivers can open bus doors – children won’t get out unless the driver wants them to.
“Every single one of the (J-12) children told us that ‘(the matron) told us to get off the bus to walk because you live close enough,’ ” she said.
Since Tuesday’s incident, the parents said about nine children have been pulled from their nearby bus stop.
“I won’t even put my kids back on the bus until I found out what they’re going to do,” Rovan said.
Arcurio said he’s had numerous meetings with McIlwain representatives and bus matron supervisors regarding the situation.
At a Thursday meeting, disciplinary decisions against the McIlwain employees in question were supposed to be “solidified,” but because the bus line does not comment publicly on personnel matters, Arcurio also declined comment.
“They’re handling it internally according to their disciplinary means,” he said.
“We agree with the parents that this was inexcusable,” he said.
“There’s no question that our students’ safety is utmost, and that’s where we stand.”
Calls to bus line President Doug McIlwain were not returned.
Arcurio said, however, that because McIlwain is contracted by the district, the district speaks for the bus line.
McIlwain Bus Lines contracts to five other local school districts: Richland, Westmont Hilltop, Conemaugh Township Area, Berlin Brothersvalley and Shade-Central City.
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/JustinDennis.