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Gator goes for ride on the bus

A Pasco school bus driver brakes for the 4-foot reptile, which students haul onboard.

Published March 9, 2004

LACOOCHEE - It was just another bus ride home as kids from Pasco Middle and High Schools laughed, played, zoned out.

Then, 14-year-old Wilfredo Santiago noticed that Miss Hattaway missed his stop. She drove down a road near a pasture to drop off another student.

That's when Wilfredo saw the alligator. It was 4 feet long and crawled across the road and into a field where a calf began kicking it, kids said.

"Can we catch it? Can we catch it?" some of the students yelled, according to Jimmie Scroggins, father of two of the teenagers.

Bus driver Sherry Hattaway said no. Then, students said, she changed her mind.

The yellow doors opened. Out ran four boys who climbed the fence, chased the alligator into a mud hole, poked sticks at it to get it to clamp its jaws down, then used their shirts to try to cover the reptile's head. A fifth student tossed a roll of electrical tape out the window, and the boys on the ground wrapped shut the gator's jaws and hoisted it back over the fence.

After 15 minutes, the boys and their catch all tumbled back into the bus:

Eleven students. One bus driver. One alligator.

Why did they want to catch the gator?

"It was the first thing that came into my head," said 14-year-old Jacob Scroggins.

Since that episode Thursday, the 41-year-old driver has been put on paid leave, said district transportation director Mike Park. Hattaway, a Pasco bus driver for five years, declined comment Monday.

State wildlife officials investigating the incident said they had turned over the results of their inquiry to the state attorney.

Parents, children and the driver all could face penalties, Park surmised. The district is awaiting results of the state investigation before taking action against students or employees.

Hattaway, officials said, should not have departed from her regular route or let kids off the bus, except at their designated stops.

"If the facts I'm hearing are true, then at the least she used some of the worst judgment someone could use in endangering kids," Pasco schools superintendent John Long said.

Park said his staff thinks Hattaway might have taken a different route to avoid a train.

Hattaway, according to district personnel files and state driving records, has an unmarred driving history. Job references said she was "good" and "excellent" with children. Six evaluations in her employee file gave her consistent satisfactory ratings, including for bus discipline and reliability.

After the teens loaded the gator into the bus, Park and some students said, Hattaway drove to the Scroggins' residence.

There, several students got off the bus with the gator, said Wilfredo, who watched all the events from inside the bus.

Soon after, Jimmy Scroggins, the father of the two boys, came home to find a crowd of kids gathered around the bed of his custom green 1978 Ford F250 truck.

"They were all, "Look what I got!"' Scroggins recalled, clearly unamused.

The gator was calm, but it was in his truck bed.

Within minutes, the welder had taken the gator to the nearby Withlacoochee River, he said.

He released it there, doled out undisclosed punishment to his sons and was not a bit surprised when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showed up at his door the next day.

Scroggins said that while he didn't condone his children's actions, he was more befuddled by the driver's.

"Kids are are going to do what kids are going to do," he said. "But there was a consenting adult involved."

His boys on Monday sheepishly relayed for the St. Petersburg Times the events of Thursday afternoon, kicking the dirt and only occasionally cracking smiles about what they'd done.

They said they felt bad for Hattaway and worried she might lose her job.

The kids agreed she was a nice driver, more willing than others to overlook the small indiscretions of her riders.

"I liked her a lot," Wilfredo, the 14-year-old witness said. "She was cool."

Said Wilfredo's mother, Aurora Moreno Santiago: "I guess she was too cool."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos and staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report. The events of the alligator incident were taken from accounts by Mike Park, riders Jared and Jacob Scroggins and Wilfredo Santiago.

[Last modified March 9, 2004, 09:35:39]

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