After a first-grader's ordeal, a mother seeks an explanation and must give a difficult one to her son about strangers.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- It frightens her still.
Days after her 6-year-old son got on the wrong school bus, wandered crying along Fourth Street N and was rescued by a kindly gentleman, Linda Duty still gets emotional when she contemplates a less happy ending.
She is grateful to the stranger who helped Justin, a first-grader at Rio Vista Elementary School, but incongruously, the mother of three must reinforce a necessary lesson that points to a less benign world.
"I've told him numerous times not to ever go with strangers," Mrs. Duty said Monday.
But of the elderly man who helped her son, she said, "I honestly believe in my heart that he saved Justin's life, and words can never express how thankful I am to him."
Justin's ordeal began last Thursday, the day after Pinellas County public schools opened for the fall term. On the first day of classes, he had gotten a ride with his mother to Rio Vista Elementary School, 8131 Macoma Drive NE, which is near Weedon Island. The next day, however, he was going to ride the bus home. Justin was excited, his mother said. She took him to school, went to the school office to let the staff know that he was taking the bus that day and explained to Justin that the red wristband she put on his hand matched the red flag that would identify his bus.
At the end of the school day, though, Justin boarded a bus with an orange flag and got off at the wrong stop. Not seeing his mother, he wandered many blocks north of the Gateway neighborhood apartment where he lives with his parents, older brother and baby sister.
Mrs. Duty said she was approaching the bus stop when the bus Justin was supposed to be on arrived. She saw the children disembarking and did not realize until the bus was gone that her son was not among them.
"I didn't panic initially," she said.
"I felt strongly that he would have had some confusion at school and that when I called the school he would be there. So I walked back home and called the office. They put me on hold and that seemed like forever. He was not in the office. They placed me back on hold and attempted to call campus police. I hung up and called 911. This is when I began to panic. They began asking for a description of my son. How tall he was. What he was wearing. At this time, I am crying and hysterical," said Mrs. Duty, adding that Justin did not know his address or phone number.
Meanwhile, Justin, who attended Lynch Elementary School as a kindergartener last year, was lost on Fourth Street N. A stranger stopped, persuaded the crying child to get into his car and drove him to the Mobil station at 10021 Fourth St. N. There, he was given something to drink and plied with cookies until the police arrived.
Alerted by Mrs. Duty's emergency call, police were able to take Justin home. His mother, who had been pacing in front of the family's apartment building, was there for his arrival.
"I ran straight to the cruiser and opened the passenger side of the car and gave him a big hug," Mrs. Duty said.
"Apparently he was found about 120th Avenue N on Fourth Street and he was walking north, opposite to where we lived, toward the Howard Frankland. He told me that an older grandfather-type person had seen him and pulled over. I still don't know what was said, but he was able to convince my son to get in the car with him."
The next day, Mrs. Duty went to the Mobil station to thank the employees and learn the name of the stranger who had been so kind to her son.
"It was then that I found out that the man in fact stayed there until the St. Pete police showed up," she said.
Not even police know the name of the Good Samaritan.
No official report was written, police spokesman Rick Stelljes said. No crime had been committed and the priority was to get Justin home.
Mrs. Duty is angry with Pinellas County school officials, especially Wayne Whitney, principal of Rio Vista Elementary, and the driver of the orange bus for failing to check to make sure that her son was on the right bus.
"They failed to look out for my son's safety, and they left him in danger and he could have been kidnapped or killed," she said.
"Red and orange are very similar colors to a child. ... He was sent to the bus circle alone, with no supervision. The kindergarten students are chaperoned. Once they reach 6 years old, they are basically on their own. He went to the circle and he managed to slip by the adults that were out there and he got on the orange bus."
The day after the incident, Mrs. Duty met with Whitney and other school representatives, who apologized and assured her that they would make sure that Justin got on the right bus in the future.
Mrs. Duty says she is taking no chances and will not let her son ride the school bus any time soon.
"I will do whatever I have to do to see to his safety, because the school failed to do it," she said.
Incidents like the one involving Justin occur "pretty infrequently, when you think that we transport 46,000 children a day," said school district spokesman Ron Stone.
"But it does happen."
He added, "Typically, when and if it does occur, it is at the beginning of the year and that is when children are just learning to ride the bus."
Stone noted that color coding usually is used to guide students to the right bus and that school employees supervise the operation.
"They try to put in as many precautions as they can," Stone said.
Monday afternoon, as students were dismissed from class, Whitney and Godfrey Watson, a guidance counselor, stood near the buses with radios in hand.
"We're doing just as we have always done, making sure the kids get on the right buses," Whitney said.
He then walked to Justin's first-grade classroom and led the children to their buses. Justin's mother and grandmother stood nearby, waiting to take him home.
Mrs. Duty said she felt she had let her son down.
"He said, "Mommy, you promised that you would be there when I get off the bus.' I had to explain to him that he had gotten on the wrong bus," Mrs. Duty said.
"My biggest dilemma now is trying to explain to Justin the difference between the stranger who was kind enough to see to his safety versus the kind of stranger who would have kidnapped and hurt him."