OREM — Each school year, bus drivers in the Alpine School District transport 17,000 children to school and back home an average of 179 times.
That adds up to more than 6 million trips that should have no margin for error — a fact illustrated by the Utah County sheriff's decision to investigate three incidents in which special-needs children were left unattended on Alpine district buses.
The incidents happened in November 2003, October 2004 and last week, when autistic 5-year-old Brandon Strain was left on an empty bus at the district storage facility for about five hours after he didn't get off the bus to go into Freedom Elementary School in Highland.
Strain apparently fell asleep that day — Jan. 4 — after his mother put him on the bus at 8:45 a.m. His baby-sitter called police when the boy didn't arrive at her house at noon. He wasn't found until the driver returned to the bus at 1:25 p.m. to drive an afternoon route.
Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said he handed the case to sheriff's detectives after parents called him to tell him Strain wasn't the first special-needs child forgotten by a driver in the district, which serves children from Orem to the Point of the Mountain.
"If something like this happens once, it's a drastic error that could have tragic consequences but fortunately didn't," Cannon said. "But if it happens twice, it's something we should look at."
Each special-education bus includes two adults, the driver and an aide, district transportation director Dick Belliston said. The three incidents involved three separate bus drivers and three separate aides. All six were disciplined.
"In the latest case, the aide on that bus has been with us for 15 years, and she's been an outstanding employee," Belliston said. "She cares about kids, loves kids, and we've never had a complaint, at least since I've been here the past five years."
The district has a training regimen for drivers and a policy that every bus be thoroughly checked at the end of the day.
After the November 2003 incident, the district issued a memo to remind drivers and aides to check buses and threatened them with termination if they failed to do so. Another memo was issued in October 2004 after a child was left on a bus for about 30 minutes.
Belliston said he couldn't say if anyone had been fired in any of the cases but stressed that the policy must be followed with strict accountability.
"The memos further outlined our expectations," he said. "We need accountability if expectations aren't met. The bottom line is there must be personal accountability. There is a policy in place. If it's not followed, there has to be accountability."
One of the previous cases involved a 3-year-old boy. The driver self-reported the incident after two or three days, Belliston said, and then the district informed the parents.
Cannon said the parents told him they weren't informed until 10 days after the incident.
"Why?" Cannon asked. "Anybody ought to be able to see that letting a parent know something like that happened is important."
Still, he isn't sure a law has been broken.
"The most similar thing I can think of is a parent leaving a child in a car while the parent runs in the store," Cannon said. "We have criminal charges for that, but when parents do that, they intend to do it. A bus driver has rules that he should check the bus, but that in itself isn't a criminal act but a violation of a policy.
"Is it possible there might be some level of negligence on the part of the driver or the aide where it becomes criminal? I don't know the answer to that at this point."
Cannon said the investigation could take two weeks.
Strain's mother, Rebecca, has said she doesn't believe anyone meant to harm Brandon.
Belliston said he understands the reason for the investigation but said the incidents were isolated mistakes and that the district is scrutinizing the problem.
"We're going to try and implement some other procedures to force people to get to the back of the bus every day," he said. "We have some things in mind.
"The parents want the same thing we do," he added, "to see the student transported safely to school and home. This is an area where we can't be 99.9 percent. . . . We have to be 100 percent, and we know that."