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Carrie Newton might have been nervous about her 5-year-old daughter's first day of kindergarten, but she never expected the phone call she received that morning: Her daughter was left on her school bus in nearly 90-degree heat for three hours due to a mistake by her bus driver.
Newton's daughter escaped what could have been a tragedy. But Newton told TODAY Parents that, although she does not blame her school district, she wants parents to know this kind of mistake can occur, and there are things they can do to prevent it.
The school secretary at Jerseyville West Elementary School in southern Illinois called Newton around 11 a.m. on Aug. 28 to say her daughter was noted as absent. Newton insisted that couldn't be right, because she had placed her daughter on the school bus at 7:30 a.m. herself.
The secretary assured Newton they would go to her classroom and look for her daughter; there could have been a mistake when taking attendance because many buses were late on the first day of the new school year. Newton waited by the phone for another call telling her all was well.
But Newton's daughter was not in her classroom, so the school began retracing the steps she would have taken to get to class. Finally, they looked on her school bus, which had been parked at the bus depot a few miles from the school since 8:30 a.m.
That's where they found Newton's daughter: still in her seat, flushed and hot, but alive.
Newton lives in a small Illinois farming community close to the state border and St. Louis. The county serves about 3,000 students, and the school buses pick up children based on where they live instead of by age and grade level.
Newton had told her daughter, who has a mild physical delay that affects her muscle tone in her legs and her speech, to follow other children her age off the bus when it stopped at her school. The school only serves children in grades pre-K through second grades.
However, there were no other younger children on the school bus — Newton's daughter was the only one who was supposed to get off at her elementary school. The school was remodeled this summer, so her daughter didn't recognize it when the driver stopped there. Instead, she waited for the driver to tell her when to get off the bus, but he did not. When he parked the bus at the depot, she tried to get his attention, but he disembarked too quickly.
Newton's daughter stayed in her seat, unsure of what to do, for the next three hours. Luckily, her mother had packed her two drinks in her lunchbox. When representatives from the school district found her, they put cold washcloths on her shoulders and gave her cold drinks before transporting her to the school, where she met her mother and was treated by the school nurse.
In a heartbreaking moment, Newton's daughter apologized to her mother for eating part of her lunch while she waited on the bus. She had a stomachache, but she was otherwise okay. "I was on the bus for a long time, and then the ladies came and took me to school," she told her mother later.
Jersey Community Unit District 100 bus drivers are required to check the bus thoroughly before leaving it at the depot, but Newton's daughter's driver did not do that. Brad Tuttle, superintendent of JCUD 100 schools, told TODAY Parents that the driver was a substitute bus driver and is no longer employed by the district.
"The school district immediately took appropriate action that day and has reminded all school bus drivers of the Regional Office of Education annual training, which addresses the requirement for all drivers to complete a walk-through after every route," he said. "In addition, the school district has reminded all drivers of the responsibility that comes with driving a school bus for Jersey CUSD 100."
"We understand that he made an error," said Newton. "I don't blame my district. I don't think this is their fault. She was found within 40 minutes of me calling and saying she is not at home — they didn't sit on their hands, and they were very apologetic. That's all I wanted."
But Newton does have a message for other parents, and a purpose for posting her daughter's experience on Twitter.
"I tweeted what I did because I didn't know as a parent that your child can get left on the bus," she said. "I didn't know that was a possibility, and I didn't know this happens every year around the country. I didn't know that children have actually died this way."
She wants other parents to realize it can happen, and to get to know their children's school bus drivers and communicate with them.
"If you're worried about your child not getting off the bus at the right stop, talk to the driver about it, and make sure there are systems in place to make sure they do," she said.
"This could've gone terribly for us, and it didn't, and if just one driver sees my post or my story and checks the bus again and finds a child that would've been left otherwise, then this was worth it."