The brother and sister knew the substitute bus driver was wrong, but he put them out 5 miles from home. Now the district is investigating.
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002
LARGO -- The nightmare of having your children left in a strange place and ultimately in the hands of a stranger became all too real for Dawn Arecco on Tuesday.
Her son, Bobby Woods, and his sister, Jacquelyn Woods, took their regular school bus home from Southern Oak Elementary that afternoon. But the bus driver, who was filling in for the regular driver, passed their stop. Bobby, 11, tried telling the driver. But the driver, Bobby said, dismissed the concerns.
Instead, he drove south on Seminole Boulevard and, some 5 miles later, let the boy and his 10-year-old sister off, Arecco and her children said Wednesday.
"Those children's lives are in the hands of the bus driver," said Barbara Woods, the children's grandmother. "They should never be allowed to do that -- after the child tells them it's the wrong stop! I think he should be fired."
Pinellas County school officials say they are investigating. They identified the driver as Ernie Crowly, 71, a relief driver and a district employee since 1997.
Bobby said he was "petrified" when he realized the driver wanted them to get off the bus in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
"I kept on saying, "This is not my bus stop,' " Bobby said. "He kept on saying, "Yes, it is.' "
Bobby said he helped his sister off and they began knocking on doors in the neighborhood.
No one answered the first door.
A middle-aged man appeared behind the second. Upon learning what had happened, he invited the children in and let them use his phone to call their mother. Then he offered them a ride home.
They took it.
"He drove them home," Arecco said of the nameless stranger who came to the rescue. "He's a stranger, and he drove them home. He told me: "The reason why I drove them home is that I have children myself, and I wouldn't want this to happen to my child.' "
Arecco said she never got the man's name.
Terry Palmer, director of transportation for Pinellas schools, said the district has launched an investigation.
"We've begun an investigation to see if we can get to the bottom of these allegations," Palmer said. "We need to get him in and do some work."
Crowly could not be reached to answer questions.
Ron Stone, a spokesman for the district, said Crowly was out driving buses Wednesday and was expected to give a statement to his supervisor at the end of his shift. A decision on what to do about Crowly is expected today.
"We are not going to try this thing in the newspaper," Stone said. "Until we find out something, he is still going to be driving."
The two children live in Orange Lake Village, just east of the intersection where Walsingham Road meets Seminole Boulevard.
Arecco said that they both attend Southern Oak Elementary and that they have been riding Bus 402 since August. The regular driver drops them off near their home, even though they are the only children on the bus who live in that neighborhood.
On Wednesday morning she went out to confront the new driver. But the bus never came. So she called Southern Oak and asked to speak with principal Robert Ammon.
Ammon learned that the route sheet for Bus 402, which lists all designated stops, failed to include a stop for the Woodses. He told Arecco to call the district and said he planned to have a talk with Crowly.
"We've never had this problem before," Ammon said. "It's a transportation issue. But I need to make sure the kids get home safe. So I need to check with the driver and see what transpired yesterday."
On Wednesday the regular driver returned, and dropped Bobby and Jacquelyn at their regular stop. Their grandmother met them at the bus door.
The family's problem could have been far worse.
In 1999, 10-year-old Eric Martin, a sixth-grader at Walker Middle School in Hillsborough County, was dropped off at a bus stop 4 miles from his home. He was later hit and killed by a car on Lutz-Lake Fern Road. District officials exonerated the driver, who tried to get the boy back onto the bus.
Arecco said if Crowly tries to drop them off at the wrong stop again, she will call the police.
"This isn't right," she said. "This man did this, and drops kids off wherever he wants even though the kids tell them it's not correct. My children were in fear for their lives."
-- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.