TORONTO â€” A Toronto mother says her disabled daughter is still traumatized more than a week after being forgotten on board a school bus and left in the cold for six hours.
Laura Mastache says her daughter Wendy, who has both autism and epilepsy, has been noticeably more reserved and withdrawn since the incident on Jan. 23.
Mastache says the driver picked Wendy up as scheduled that morning, and was supposed to drop her off at the back entrance of a Toronto high school where the 19-year-old’s special education program is held.
But the driver only dropped the students off at the front door, forgetting to take Wendy to her destination and leaving her on the bus, without heat, until it was time to take students home at the end of the day.
The incident prompted the Toronto District School Board to change one of its attendance notification policies and resulted in the bus driver losing her job.
Mastache says such actions can’t ever answer the questions that linger as she and her daughter struggle to make sense of what happened.
“She could have died there,” Mastache said in a telephone interview. “Hypothermia. I don’t know if she had a convulsion, if she passed out, I don’t know.”
Mastache said the day began as usual when she put Wendy on the school bus around 8:30 in the morning.
She had no idea anything was amiss until a concerned teacher phoned at the end of the day to report that Wendy had been absent from class all day, but had recently been seen getting off the bus that was rounding up students for the trip home.
Mastache, feeling panicky, went to the school to make inquiries. She said school officials were reviewing surveillance video and reported that Wendy had not entered the school building at the beginning of the day.
Mastache said she confronted the school bus driver, who initially denied knowing anything about Wendy’s whereabouts.
Later on, however, Mastache said the driver broke down and admitted that she had forgotten to both drop Wendy off and check that the bus was vacant.
The driver chalked the error up to anxiety to get to a funeral, Mastache said, adding she believes her daughter sat in the bus near the funeral site all day. Temperatures hovered around the freezing mark on Jan. 23, she said, adding Wendy was not dressed appropriately for a prolonged stint in cold conditions.
Stock Transportation, the company that employed the bus driver, said such a breach of protocol was a serious matter.
“Our drivers are required to conduct a child check to look for students at the end of each route,” spokeswoman Molly Hart said in a statement. “In this instance, the procedure was not followed and the driver has been terminated.”
The incident also prompted a policy change at the Toronto District School Board, according to spokesman Ryan Bird.
The board routinely notifies parents if a student under the age of 18 has missed school, but did not do so once students were legally classified as adults, Bird said.
Mastache’s ordeal has prompted the board to revise the policy and send absentee notifications to the parents of all special needs students regardless of their age, he said.
Mastache said her daughter was unable to return to school for days after the incident, only venturing back for a half-day on Wednesday.
She said the once enthusiastic student has been noticeably more reticent since being left on the bus, refusing to board the vehicle again and adopting a different demeanour when she did go back to class.
“She was different. Everybody noticed,” Mastache said. “She didn’t answer to … her teachers, when she’s the kind of girl that says hi and gives a smile.”
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Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press