MORETOWN — Parents say they weren’t told the extent of an incident Thursday where a school bus with children on board slid off a snowy road and was hanging halfway down an embankment.
School officials say they also weren’t told the extent of the incident, placing blame for a “serious communication breakdown” on the bus company, First Student.
The bus was traveling west on Moretown Common Road Thursday morning when it went up a steep, curved section of hill. The bus lost traction and slid backward and then off the roadway. It came to a stop after it started to go down an embankment and the bottom of the bus caught the edge of the road. Police and fire crews responded to the scene.
The incident was reported to police at about 7:50 a.m. Moretown Elementary School Principal Mandy Couturier sent out an email to parents at around 8:30 a.m., saying buses had been delayed due to weather, but the children were safe. Couturier sent out another email at about 9:20 a.m. saying all students had arrived at the school.
Vermont State Police sent out a news release about the incident at 2:15 p.m.
Harwood Unified Union School District Superintendent Brigid Nease sent out an email at 3:10 p.m., saying she had been told the bus has slid into a ditch and all of the school district’s safety protocols were followed. She told parents police and fire were dispatched to the scene because the back end of the bus was hanging over a drop-off. Parents have said this was the first time they were told by school officials the extent of the incident. Some already had been filled in by their children when they were picked up from school.
Nease told parents there were 24 students on the bus and eight of them had been picked up by their parents while the rest were taken to school in a different bus.
Sasha Bianchi’s 8- and 5-year-old daughters were on the bus.
“I did not know my kids were in that situation. They sent an email at 8:30 a.m., which is a full hour after my kids should be arriving at school, saying a bus had been delayed. But they didn’t say what the bus number was, so I didn’t know if it was relevant to me or not,” Bianchi said.
She said the experience scared her children and they told her other kids were crying. She said older students had cellphones so they could call their parents, but the younger kids had to sit and wait.
“I think they were comforted by police, but in all this time I don’t know this is happening to my kids. I wish I had known. I would have liked to have known and had the choice to come pick them up, but I didn’t have that choice. I was just at work thinking my kids were at school,” Bianchi said.
She said she wants an alert system for the parents of the students involved to tell them what’s happening in a situation like this.
Shannon Towndrow’s 8-year-old son also was on the bus. Towndrow said her son is a special needs student because he has autism, anxiety and dyspraxia. She said the bus driver knows this, and he and emergency responders tried to keep him calm, but her son reacts to changes in his routine. Because of the incident with the bus, Towndrow said her son had to be restrained 10 times by school staff on Thursday.
She said her son did not take the bus to school Friday, but was instead taken by his parents because he told her he was afraid and didn’t want want to end up in a ditch again.
Because school officials didn’t know the extent of the incident meant school staff didn’t know, either. Some teachers at the school took to social media to say they wish they had known so they could have properly support the students impacted.
“His one-on-worker didn’t know,” Towndrow said. “The person who spends all day with him (didn’t know) he was internalizing this. He was an anxious mess all day.”
Police reported no one was injured, but Towndrow contends while no one may have been physically hurt, the students’ mental health was certainly impacted.
Superintendent Nease sent out a detailed statement Friday afternoon, stating First Student, the bus company the school district uses, was to blame for the break down in communication. She said after she sent out her email Thursday afternoon she started seeing social media posts about the bus and saw a photograph of the incident for the first time.
“My heart sank. Obviously, this was hardly a bus ‘stuck in a ditch.’ The physical and emotional safety of our students is the most important part of my job and I take it very seriously and do everything I can to make the best decisions,” she said.
Jennifer Mitchell, a location manager with First Student, sent Nease a message Friday saying the bus company “failed in providing the district with accurate, timely information.” Mitchell told Nease there was a breakdown in communication between the bus driver and dispatch. She apologized on behalf of the company.
Nease said she was told that because no collision occurred, First Student didn’t consider the incident an accident so the school district’s accident protocol was not followed.
Nease said the incident is still under investigation by her, police and by the bus company.
Going forward she said she, as well as the impacted school’s principal, will be notified any time a bus is stopped or delayed and that notification will include a picture of the situation, if it’s safe to take one, and a specific description.