tampabay.com

All ends well as lost kids found

Anxious parents wonder how a mixup sent their kindergarteners on unnecessary bus rides after school.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published August 12, 2006


SPRING HILL - It was every parent's nightmare.

For a period of time Thursday afternoon - it's not clear exactly how long - at least three kindergarteners from J.D. Floyd Elementary School were unaccounted for after dismissal at 3:20.

Parents expecting to pick up their children at school couldn't find them, and bus delays meant many other children weren't arriving at homes or day care centers on schedule. Between 5 and 5:30 p.m., police reported a flurry of calls from frightened parents.

Principal Marcia Austin attributed the mishap in part to a breakdown of procedures and unusually high enrollment on the first day of school.

The kindergarteners - sent in a "first wave" of children to meet their parents in the parking lot - got mixed in with a second wave of children and wound up on a school bus, she said.

"So these parents were panicking, and rightfully so," Austin said. "Given the fact that one of the parents was upset, I went ahead and called the police."

Parent Jennifer Miller arrived at Great Beginnings Preschool & Day Care on Spring Hill Drive expecting to find her 6-year-old daughter, Gabriella, a first-grader at Floyd. Instead, she found other frantic parents and a worried day care director.

"She said they were still missing four children," Miller said, with one of them her daughter.

Arriving at J.D. Floyd, she found sheriff's deputies out front and more parents on cell phones.

"Nobody from the school was out front," Miller said. "They had deputies talking to parents instead."

Principal Austin said the problem was compounded because some children were driven to school by their parents and then lined up to take a bus home. Where there was room in the morning, in the afternoon there were more kids than seats and more buses had to be ordered, she said.

"We were done about 5:30 here," Austin said. "Our parents and children were reunited, and there was a sigh of relief and everyone went home."

Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, said authorities received 12 calls after 5 p.m. Some calls were almost immediately canceled as children were located, but at least one was still recorded as missing at 6:20 before being located at 6:37, she said.

"This was pretty hectic for a short period of time," she added.

Under School Board policy, younger children are never released from a bus if an adult isn't present, Austin said. And she said that policy was followed Thursday.

The missing kindergarteners went on a long, unnecessary bus ride before returning to school, while other children were simply delayed in reaching their destinations, she said.

Enrollment at J.D. Floyd has been high this week, with about 1,400 students showing up and 1,500 projected in kindergarten through seventh grade, Austin said. Last year there were some 1,200 in kindergarten through Grade 6.

Though some parents have asked whether the new middle school program at Floyd is responsible for the increase, Austin said it's a relatively small piece of the overall enrollment, with 185 students in grades 6 and 7, roughly half the size of the other grades.

On Friday, teachers were planning to carefully separate the bus riders from those being picked up. And there was an extra bus for anticipated overflows.

At day's end, Austin said the dismissal had gone much more smoothly.

While there was still an overflow, even with the extra buses, the last vehicle departed at 4:30 p.m. and all parents had left the parking lot by 4:45 p.m., Austin said.

"This was good today, I must say," she added.

But parents were still talking about Thursday's breakdown and wondering why more wasn't done, Miller said.

"You need to have enough buses to go around," she said. "The school should have had people on the phone, letting them know it's the first day of school and it's going to be a little crazy."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.