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When no one meets bus, small kids not abandoned

Drivers don't want to leave youngsters at stops where no adult is present. It's not policy, they say, but common sense.

Published October 2, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Hours after most children his age are home from school, 5-year-old Elgin Drayton is pacing the floor at the 49th Street bus compound.

The North Shore Elementary kindergartener already has rummaged through his backpack several times, asked for a drink of water and colored several pages in a Scooby-Doo coloring book.

Finally, at 5:40 p.m. - nearly two hours after the child arrived - a clerk reaches his mother.

Angela Young is clearly upset when she arrives at the bus compound 10 minutes later. She has little patience for the clerk's explanation that Elgin's bus driver brought him there because no one was at his stop to meet him.

"We stay right across the street," Young said. "He can come home on his own."

Scenes like this play out hundreds of times a year at the south Pinellas bus complex, the nerve center for nearly 200 school bus routes.

School officials say there is no formal policy that prohibits drivers from leaving students at stops where no adult is present. Yet the practice is widespread. Drivers often return young children and those with special needs to their schools or bring them to one of the county's bus compounds.

Since south Pinellas routes are so long, it's usually quicker for drivers to bring children from that area either to the Lealman compound or the 49th Street compound, where transportation employees make them as comfortable as possible while they wait for their parents.

Compound supervisors call it "daddy day care."

But after a horrific year in which two students were struck by cars and killed after getting off their school buses, Cesar Almodovar, one of several supervisors at the 49th Street compound, calls it common sense.

"Bus drivers are legally labeled as parents in absentia," he said. "They take ownership of the children for the time the kids are on the bus."

* * *

In the four years she has been a supervisor at the 49th Street compound, Leola Simmons has entertained hundreds of children who had no one to greet them at their bus stops.

"You get to be mom, doctor, lawyer - the whole nine yards with these kids," said Simmons, a former bus driver who has worked in the district for 21 years. "Sometimes they come in here crying. They don't know what's happening. We have to reassure them that we're not going to hurt them."

By 3 or 4 p.m., the time most children arrive at the compound, they are tired, hungry and want to be home, Simmons said.

She keeps a supply of crayons and coloring books on hand to occupy them.

Employees have brought in toys and stuffed animals.

What's really frustrating, Simmons said, is when transportation workers can't reach a child's parent or guardian. Kids don't always know their phone numbers, she said.

Sometimes, they don't even know their parents' names.

In those cases, employees call the school to get the number listed on the child's clinic card, but the number often has been changed or disconnected.

If the child's backpack yields no clues, the supervisors can only hope a parent or guardian will call.

Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't, said Leslie Crisco, who has been a clerk at the 49th Street compound for three years.

"We're kind of in limbo," Crisco said. "There have been times when it gets to be 6 o'clock and the compound is closing and we've had to call the police."

That happened a few weeks ago, said supervisor Kelvin Clark. St. Petersburg police had to take three children who were still at the compound at closing time to a local homeless shelter, where they were staying with their father.

Things can get complicated in an area like St. Petersburg, where homelessness, foster parents and extended families come into play, Clark said.

But the hardest thing for him to deal with are parents who are angry because they have to come to the compound to pick up their children.

"It's like they're in a different zone," Clark said. "You would think they'd be grateful with all the predators in the neighborhoods."

* * *

While some children end up at the 49th Street compound once, others are there so often they feel right at home, said bus driver Ava Devaux.

Some kids know where the bathroom is and how to work the remote control for the television in the conference room.

Repeat visits sometimes signal cases of child abuse, supervisors say. Those cases are referred to school officials, who may choose to alert protective service agencies.

Bus driver Broderick King knows what it's like to bring the same children to the compound over and over.

He said he has several children on his route whose parents consistently fail to meet them at the bus stop. He waits as long as he can, and even doubles back to see if the parents have arrived, but he ends up taking at least one of his passengers to the compound every week.

"One mom was picking her child up at 5 o'clock for a while," King said. "I guess she was using the compound like a babysitter service."

Crisco, the clerk at the 49th Street compound, has learned not to make appointments after work because she frequently has to stay past 4:30 p.m., the time she is scheduled to go home.

Thankfully, Crisco said, not all the parents who come to get their children are angry.

"We had this one mom who had moved and the child didn't know the area," she said. "The parent was caught in traffic. She was elated that we didn't drop her child off in an unfamiliar neighborhood."

But regardless of how parents feel, Simmons, the supervisor, says she sleeps better at night knowing she's doing what she thinks is right for kids.

"It's a sticky situation," she said. "But you can't let them go when they look around and you know they don't know where they're at."

[Last modified October 2, 2005, 04:53:49]

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