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A tragic mistake

Clayton Wilcox's response to Brooke Ingoldsby's death was an appropriate first step, but the school district must do all it can to ensure it doesn't happen again.

A Times Editorial
Published February 15, 2005


The pain that the family of 8-year-old Brooke Ashlee Ingoldsby is enduring is intensely personal, but the words that Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox spoke were necessarily public. The third-grader died Friday after stepping off her bus and running into heavy traffic in St. Petersburg, and Wilcox went before television cameras Monday to offer sympathy and candor.

In this moment of tragedy, the new superintendent's response was reassuring. He offered "our regrets and deepest apologies" to the family and then detailed the events that led to Brooke being dropped off on the wrong side of busy Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Unlike the October death of 16-year-old Rebecca McKinney, who was assigned a dangerous bus stop in violation of the district's policies, this loss appears to be the deadly result of equipping a fill-in driver with a faulty computer map. As the driver discovered his route map was wrong, he radioed for help. The dispatcher provided the right instructions, but in the confusion of the moment the driver left the word "west" off his handwritten notes for the final stop. The result was that Brooke left the bus and tried to cross Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street on her own. When the bus driver realized what was happening, it was too late for him to react.

The account speaks to tragic mistakes. But no matter the cause, the school system absolutely has to find a way to further reduce the risk to children. Wilcox says one change has been immediate: Route maps are now double-checked before they are faxed to fill-in drivers. He also says the district is working with the computer company that provides its routing software to figure out why the system printed an outdated route. Given the past mistakes with Edulog, that technology fix is long overdue.

With the dramatic increase in busing that has resulted from the choice student assignment plan, Brooke's own circumstance is hard to ignore. She was traveling to a distant school as a result of a choice plan that originally gave her family no other option. That choice plan has increased the amount, cost and inconvenience of busing throughout Pinellas - and presents a daily challenge to provide enough qualified drivers.

The district has been forced to add some 300 new drivers to accommodate choice busing, and on any given day roughly 75 routes are handled by fill-in drivers. Just like the classroom, substitutes are seldom as effective as the real thing. Substitute bus drivers often don't know the routes or the children. When those riders are as young as 5, the potential for disaster only increases. Aren't there more options for transporting elementary students, such as adding an adult rider to accompany each bus driver?

After Rebecca McKinney's death, the school district's initial response under outgoing superintendent Howard Hinesley was silence and deception. Wilcox, who hadn't officially taken charge, later ordered a full investigation and ended up disciplining transportation employees and reorganizing the department. After Brooke's death, Wilcox took the appropriate first step. He expressed sympathy, apologized and publicly presented the awful facts.

Now Wilcox and his leadership team must do everything possible to ensure another student doesn't get off a bus and get killed because of a school district mistake.

[Last modified February 15, 2005, 01:16:18]


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