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Bus switch leads to child search

Once the boy was safely home, his mother said his family will provide transportation to and from school.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- On her son's first day of school, Tiffany Monroe did everything she could to keep him safe.

When Cody, 5, boarded a Pinellas County school bus Wednesday morning for the 40-minute ride to Seminole Elementary School, Monroe asked the driver to put him in a front seat, away from bigger students. She even followed the bus in her car to make sure Cody arrived safely.

But when the bus returned that afternoon to Monroe's apartment complex off 54th Avenue S, her son wasn't on it.

A student told her Cody probably got on another bus, bound for 31st Street S. Monroe raced there in her car, then realized she didn't know where on 31st Street S her son might be.

She called Seminole Elementary, 10950 74th Ave. N, where an assistant principal said they were trying to locate the bus with Cody on it. The assistant principal knew the stops that bus would make, Monroe said.

But the driver's CB radio was broken, the assistant principal told Monroe. So he could not tell her whether Cody had already gotten off at the wrong stop.

St. Petersburg police joined the search. Monroe and her husband, ShaCoda, were looking, too, walking the streets where Cody might have gotten off the bus.

"I'm asking people, "Have you seen a little boy, black Nike bag and blue boots?' " said Monroe, 24, +

who works in a credit agency's marketing department. "Everybody's saying, "No, no, no.' "

About 5 p.m., Monroe spotted a police officer in his car, parked in the area of Second Avenue S and 34th Street. Cody had been found, he said, and was waiting at Lealman Avenue Elementary on 58th Avenue N.

But two hours would pass before Monroe saw her 5-year-old, because Cody wasn't at Lealman Avenue Elementary or the next place she tried, Lealman Discovery Middle School. He was waiting in an office at the Lealman bus compound, 3991 37th St. N.

As his mother searched, Cody had tried to get off the bus once, school officials told Monroe later. But he was crying so hard that the worried driver kept him on board as she finished her Seminole Elementary route, then picked up students at John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S, and took them home.

The driver returned with Cody to the bus compound. When Monroe arrived about 7 p.m., Cody ran to give her a hug. Since then, she said, "He keeps saying, "I was lost. I was lost on the bus.' "

Neither Elaine Cutler, principal at Seminole Elementary, nor her boss, Area III Superintendent Cathy Athanson, returned phone calls left Friday.

But Monroe said Cutler told her that the mistake occurred because Cody's bus was switched to another route before school ended Wednesday. He should have been put on the new, correct bus. Cutler apologized, Monroe said.

To compound her frustration, Monroe had noticed Wednesday morning that Cody did not receive the same purple wristband that other students did as they got off the bus at Seminole Elementary. The wristbands help students know which bus they should board in the afternoon. Monroe pointed out the error to Cody's teacher, she said, who assured her she would take care of it.

Because of a federal desegregation order, Cody cannot attend any of three elementary schools near his home. That order is nearing an end, but any changes are not likely to affect most students until 2003.

Athanson has offered to reassign Cody to a school closer to his home, Tyrone Elementary at 2401 66th St. N in St. Petersburg, said Cody's grandmother, Geraldine Goins.

Cody's family hasn't decided how they will respond to that offer. They do know, however, that they will be the only ones driving him to and from school.

"If they're going to bus him out 40 minutes, they have to make sure they get him home safely," Monroe said. "The adults and the system failed him. He had to save himself."

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