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Broken radio, new driver add to the complications as kindergartners get the scenic route to school

This story has been updated from its original version as new information became available.

The first day of school for a couple of West Linn kindergartners was particularly adventurous Monday, when their new driver got lost on the way to school.

According to Andrew Kilstrom, West Linn-Wilsonville School District director of communications, a bus collecting kindergartners in the Marylhurst Heights neighborhood took a wrong turn in the twisty roads of the neighborhood and the driver couldn't find the way back to the route.

"The bus should have been at school by 7:40 a.m., so it was nearly an hour late," Kilstrom said.

Complicating the mistake was a malfunctioning radio that has since been fixed. Eventually, the tardy driver used a cellphone to call First Student, the transportation company used by the school district, and ask for help.

CJ Kirkham's daughter was one of the students aboard the bus — a choice the family made so the 5-year-old could experience a "dry run" and check out the transportation method. The plan was for Kirkham to put her daughter on the bus and drive to Trillium Primary to meet her there — but nothing turned out like they hoped.

"When the bus didn't come 10 minutes after school started, we went inside to find out what happened and discovered that the school didn't even have that bus on its list," Kirkham said. "If the other mother and I hadn't told them about it, I don't think they would have known the bus was missing."

District staff reached out to First Student, but it was another 10 or 15 minutes before the bus was located — and only after Kirkham had called West Linn Police in desperation.

"You want to give them the benefit of the doubt that they can locate the bus; they have GPS on the buses," she said.

After the students arrived safely at school, Kirkham started pressing the district and First Student about what went wrong.

"This isn't what we'd want for any kids' first-day-of-school experience," said Kilstrom.

The neighborhood's location, straddling several primary and middle school attendance zones, complicated the problem.

"There are about 12 buses coming through this neighborhood; it's so easy to get on the wrong bus," Kirkham said.

According to Kilstrom, the same bus inadvertently picked up a group of students destined for a different school earlier in the morning, dropping them back at home and ensuring other transportation was arranged when the error was discovered.

"There needs to be a plan in place to prevent these kinds of mishaps from happening in the first place," said Kirkham. "There needs to be a standardized practice; there needs to be a working radio in every bus. We live in a society with cellphones — there should be emergency phones where you can pull over to the side of the road and call for help. There need to be active, recording video cameras on every bus.

"We live in a society that's different fromn 20 years ago," Kirkham said. "No matter what people say, it's just not appropriate for an adult male to be driving 5-year-old girls around alone for 80 minutes."

According to Kilstrom, the district's agreement with First Student only mandates video surveillance on a minimum of 10 percent of the buses at any given time, but the majority of the buses are equipped with cameras. As he understands it, Kilstrom said, the systems are supposed to be checked before every day's bus runs. The bus in question did not have video recording on Aug. 27.

"This was a new driver, so I think that was a factor," Kilstrom said Monday. "First Student called in a retired driver to ride along on this route for a few days to help the new driver learn the route. And I believe the new guy spent his lunch hour today practicing with supervision."

Since the district doesn't have video to investigate the incident, they are using GPS information supplied by First Student to verify the bus's movements. And Kilstrom said the district expects to be revisiting the video surveillance requirements on buses, in light on this incident.

As for Kirkham, she will only consider letting her child ride the bus again if the driver is replaced. For now, her husband has had to alter his work schedule to take their daughter to school. Meanwhile, she still has questions.

"Especially in the first week, why do the drivers not have a list of the kids they should be picking up so they can cross them off as they go? Why don't they introduce themselves and say what school they are going to? Why can't I know the name of the person driving my child to school? I think a lot of people don't realize that these buses are not part of the district," Lirkham said. "They don't have the same safety in place that the schools have."

Kilstrom said First Student representatives met with school district administrators on Tuesday, Aug. 28, to discuss changes to ensure an incident like this does not happen again.

Parents experiencing bus transportation issues can call First Student at 503-570-8604. If concerns persist, Kilstrom suggests calling the main office for the school district at 503-673-7034.

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