LAKE WALES, Fla. — A school bus driver and attendant here have been charged with neglect for allegedly leaving a special-needs student stranded twice — even though the bus was equipped with a reminder device.
According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, on two occasions within a week of each other, the 13-year-old boy was sleeping in his seat on the bus when other passengers were dropped off at school, and then he was left alone on the bus after it was parked.
"This was entirely avoidable — the Polk County School Board is committed to keeping our children safe, equipping school buses with the latest technology to ensure children are not left behind,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said. “These two suspects completely disregarded all safety measures, and endangered a 13-year-old special-needs student — there is absolutely no excuse for this type of neglect."
The first incident occurred on March 2. Police said that the student was sleeping in the sixth seat from the rear of the school bus, while attendant Gwendolyn Simmons sat behind him. School bus driver Gale Brown drove the bus and passengers to Our Children's Academy, and all of the children except the 13-year-old disembarked.
According to police, Simmons walked to the front of the bus without noticing that the 13-year-old was still in his seat asleep. Brown then drove and parked the bus on Mobley Street in Lake Wales and turned the bus off. Authorities said that Brown and Simmons then exited the bus without checking to make sure that it was empty.
According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the 13-year-old student woke up about 15 minutes later, climbed out of the driver's side emergency exit window, and hitchhiked and walked about 30 miles to his home in Davenport.
The second incident happened less than a week later, on March 8. Police said that the same student was again sleeping in his seat on the school bus, and Brown and Simmons again failed to notice him when they parked the bus and left. When the boy woke up this time, he forced open the bus door and, again, hitchhiked and walked home.
On Wednesday, the day after the second incident, detectives from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit arrested Brown, 51, and Simmons, 57. Each of them was charged with two counts of negligent child abuse. They were booked into the county jail.
The school bus is equipped with a child reminder system to prompt the driver or aide to walk to the back and check for students at the end of a run. Also on board the bus: a digital video surveillance system that reportedly recorded both incidents.
According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Brown and Simmons admitted to having a student deactivate the child reminder device on the bus before they arrived at school on both occasions. Police said that the pair also admitted to not checking the bus before leaving it parked. The driver and aide were reportedly unaware that the boy had been left unattended on the bus.