ST. PAUL - St. Paul Education has confirmed a serious incident occurred on Tuesday when a kindergarten student stayed on a school bus after it was returned to the bus driver's yard, following the morning drop-off.
According to a statement signed by Superintendent Glen Brodziak and board Chair Heather Starosielski, "The child exited the bus and found their way to the road in a rural area. A concerned citizen intervened and the child was brought safely to the RCMP."
Temperatures at the time hovered around the -23C mark, but felt much colder with the windchill, according to Environment Canada.
The bus driver has been relieved of his duties, pending further investigation.
A family upset
According to Donna Favel, her grandson Taylor was picked up from daycare at 8:10 a.m. but did not get off the bus at school. The school bus was then parked on the outskirts of St. Paul.
She believes her grandson eventually walked toward a secondary highway. The family was told that Taylor spent about half an hour outdoors, in the cold, before someone passing by picked him up.
"This was so upsetting, so I told them all the uneasy thoughts that went through my mind. All the things that could’ve happened and we never see him again," says Favel. "I told them that the driver should not be driving. They informed me that he’s suspended."
Favel expressed concerns about the school bus and the driver.
"I told them they should... have something in place on the bus, an alarm or button they can push, a cell, a blanket, a plan; and educate (children) what to do when this happens," says Favel.
Taylor's mom, Tarilyn Youngchief, also offered a comment to Lakeland Today regarding the incident.
"It was terrifying, the moment I got the call from the school telling me he wasn't there, I immediately broke down and left work. I contacted the RCMP and they said somebody brought him in," recalled Youngchief. "My heart felt like it fell out of my chest... It shouldn't take a near death experience for people to prioritize the life of a young Indigenous child... My kid could have froze to death or been kidnapped."
She believes her son is traumatized by the incident, "and you can see it on his face."
Unfortunately, Youngchief says this isn't the first time something like this happens. A similar incident occurred another day, but Youngchief was on hand to notice her son did not get off the bus, and she was able to chase the bus down.
Youngchief says she received the phone call from the school at 9:36 a.m., asking if Taylor was coming into school that day. When she picked him up from the RCMP detachment at 10 a.m., his body was still cold, and Youngchief took him to the hospital to have him checked out. She was advised to keep him warm.
She told Lakeland Today that her son will not be returning to the school as a student, due to the incident.
The statement from St. Paul Education explains that school bus drivers are trained to do a mandatory walk-through of buses to ensure the vehicle is empty before they leave it. An initial review of the incident shows that this walk-through was not done.
An additional step to ensure children's safety is for schools to start making phone calls to students who are marked absent. Normally, this process starts at 8:45 a.m. each day, beginning with the youngest grades first.
There was a delay in noting the child's absence, "in part due to the large number of absences that day in the school as a result of several buses not running due to varying road conditions," according to the school division.
St. Paul Education says it immediately launched an investigation into the incident.
"We are thankful for the safe return of this child and the swift response from the concerned citizen," reads the statement from St. Paul Education. "We take this situation to heart and this matter has our full attention. We have been in regular contact with the student’s family and will support them in any way we can."
This school division will now be reviewing it's transportation practices and equipment, along with looking at the student absence reporting process "all with a view to improve student safety," reads the statement.
The school division says it is also examining all of its training, school bus safety practices, administrative procedures, and "will take the steps necessary to ensure we reduce any identified risk to students."
The school division says it will cooperate fully if an RCMP investigation takes place. Lakeland Today has reached out to RCMP to confirm the details of the incident, and is awaiting a response.
"Our actions and decisions are guided by our commitment to the safety of St. Paul School Division students," reads the statement provided by St. Paul Education.