Boy left on North Thurston bus stirs memories of 2013 case for mom

Fern Humphrey is angry.

Her son Elijah Ranken was left on a North Thurston Public Schools bus by a substitute driver Jan. 28, 2013. He was a preschooler at the time, about three years younger than the kindergartner who was left on a bus for about seven hours by a substitute bus driver Tuesday.

In both cases, district officials pulled video footage and conducted an investigation.

The driver in the 2013 case was a 28-year veteran driver, Humphrey said.

“She didn’t follow the proper protocol of checking the bus like they’re supposed to,” Humphrey told The Olympian on Thursday. “He was there for over two hours unattended.”

Humphrey said she sought advice from a lawyer at the time, but decided to let the district handle the issue internally. Just as in Tuesday’s case, the bus driver resigned, and officials in the nearly 14,000-student district in Lacey promised to make changes to their transportation system.

“More than anything, I’m just angry,” said Humphrey, 35, who now lives in the Rainier School District. “It just makes me feel like they didn’t follow through with what they said they’d follow through with and make sure this never happens again.”

Meantime, district officials have begun looking at ways to prevent another such incident, and one of those is adding new systems on their buses that won’t allow a bus driver to leave the bus until he or she has walked to the back of it and turned off an alarm, North Thurston Public Schools spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve said.

“The goal is to get that installed over winter break” she said. “Until then, we’re having extra people walk through buses every night and midday. We can’t prevent human error.”

In Tuesday’s case, the driver admitted to not performing a walk-through to ensure all of the kids were off the shortened bus at the end of the route, according to Schrieve.

Walk-throughs are a job requirement, and their importance would have been reinforced during training that he went through when he was hired this past summer, she said.

The driver will not face criminal charges because he didn’t intend to leave the child on the bus, said Sgt. Ray Brady with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re not looking at the case criminally,” he said. “It’s one of those really unfortunate accident kind of things.”

Originally, the boy’s foster mom thought his biological mom had picked him up for a visit at school; that’s why she didn’t call authorities immediately after he wasn’t at day care in the afternoon, Brady said.

After discussing the issue with a caseworker, the boy’s foster mom called 911 at 8:52 p.m., Brady said. Deputies were dispatched at 9 p.m. to the woman’s home, and were able to gain access to the bus yard at about 10:30 p.m,, Brady said.

The boy was found “sitting in what they believe was his original seat,” Brady said.

“He was sleeping at the time they got on the bus, and appeared well when they woke him up, and was glad to see them,” he said.

Brady said the boy is noncommunicative and has some minor disabilities, so he wasn’t able to tell authorities what happened.

Mindy Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services, said the boy’s foster mom has “been licensed for some time.”

She said child welfare records are confidential so she couldn’t discuss whether the boy had been moved to another home. However, she confirmed that the department is aware of the incident.

“There is not an investigation,” Chambers said. “At this point, we’re collecting information on everybody who was involved in the situation to determine what occurred.”

Humphrey said she hasn’t let her children ride a school bus since the 2013 incident. But she remembers her son’s reaction after they found him on the bus.

“He was like, ‘I was on a bus for so long; it took such a long time to get me to school,’” she said. “I was really glad that he wasn’t upset or traumatized by it.”

When she heard about Tuesday’s incident, Humphrey was flooded with memories and emotions from the day her son was left on a bus.

She said she now regrets not taking legal action against the district because that could have forced officials to make changes sooner.

“Something needs to change,” Humphrey said. “Obviously there’s a problem with their system.”