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JCPS ‘transportation disaster’ brings panic as families go hours without knowing kids' locations

Students seen through the exterior of a school bus. They look through the windows skeptically.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
Students arrive at Schaffner Elementary for the first day of the 2023-2024 school year.

Jefferson County Public Schools experienced numerous issues with bus rides on the first day of school Wednesday, causing many parents to call police about their missing children.

Wednesday was the first day of kindergarten for Bethany Baumann’s 5-year-old daughter. It should have been a day for celebrating a milestone. Instead it was a nightmare.

“Yesterday was probably the scariest day of my life,” Baumann said.

Jefferson County Public Schools started the year with a new bus routing system. Meant to alleviate a dire bus driver shortage, the district hired a consultant to develop a route network that could handle more than 60,000 kids with just over 600 drivers.

On the first day of the new school year, that plan failed.

Students arrived home hours late, the last student being dropped off just before 10 p.m. For many parents, the afternoon and evening were periods of terror as they struggled to locate their children.

LPM News spoke with several families about their experiences.

Parents scramble to find their children

For 45 excruciating minutes, Heather Estes did not know where her child was. No one did.

It was after 6 p.m., and Estes was at Fern Creek Elementary, her daughter’s school, where she expected to find her 8-year-old waiting for her.

It was the second stop she had made to try to find her child that afternoon. First, Estes went to Bates Elementary where her daughter was supposed to be dropped off by 5:33 p.m. for an afterschool program. After waiting at Bates for 40 minutes, Estes said someone told her the bus had never left Fern Creek, and she should go pick her up there.

“My husband and I both headed to the school. We get there almost exactly the same time, go to give them her name, and then they can't find her. And she's not there,” Estes said.

Other parents were there, too, looking for their own kids.

“I know one of the gentlemen was crying,” she said.

It took almost an hour, Estes said, but after Fern Creek staff got through to the bus compound, they figured out that her daughter had been put on the wrong bus. At around 8:40 p.m., when the bus came back to the school with her second-grader on it, Estes was relieved.

“She was a little bit ruffled. You could tell she had been crying,” she said. Estes

Estes checked her bus tag on her backpack — it had the number that corresponded to a route that went through their neighborhood, but not the correct route.

“That was probably what was in their system from last year,” Estes said.

Estes said she called the main bus hub this summer to update their transportation plan to send her daughter to Bates Elementary for afterschool childcare, not straight home. She said she spoke to a man on the phone who said he would “get it to the transportation people.”

“Obviously that appears to not have happened,” she said.

Estes said teachers and bus drivers are not to blame for the mess, and said the staff at Fern Creek was as helpful as they could be.

“I fully 100% believe that they are in this as much as we are. And I think they're doing the best that they can with a broken system,” she said.

Calls to the police

Bethany Baumann was so worried by the bus debacle, she called the police to locate her missing child.

By 7 p.m., her 5-year-old daughter had still not been dropped off at her stop near Central Park, and she didn’t know where she was.

Email responses from an administrator about her child’s location were vague and of little help. Baumann called the JCPS help line, but it closed at 7 p.m. She called the bus depots, but the lines were busy.

Then it started getting dark and rainy.

“Me and my husband are hysterical at this point, sobbing like, ‘Where is our child?’” she said.

She called the Louisville Metro Police Department’s nonemergency line. It rang for several minutes before someone picked up. They asked her for her daughter’s hair color, eye color and the last place she saw her.

Baumann said it was “traumatizing.”

“Like filling out a missing persons report on my child who was just supposed to be at her first day of school,” she said.

Data obtained by LPM suggests Baumann wasn’t the only JCPS parent who called the police that day.

According to data from MetroSafe, police received 59 calls reporting missing children after 2:20 p.m. Wednesday, an unusually high number according to Louisville Metro spokesperson Jessica Wethington.

“Most of these were canceled or no report was made because someone located the child,” she said.

Finally, at around 9 p.m. Baumann said the bus came. Her husband asked her daughter if she had wet herself during the three-hour ride. But she had held it together.

“She was fine. … She didn't know because she had nothing to base it off of,” Baumann said of her daughter’s very first day of school.

Baumann said JCPS needs to “do a complete overhaul of what they think the bus system needs to look like.”

What students experienced

Sixth-grader Cavin Morris told LPM he waited an hour and a half on a bus without air conditioning in the parking lot of Fairdale High School, waiting for his transfer.

“I was stuck in a bus that was off,” he said.

Morris and his fellow students got overheated. They were each offered a small bottle of water during the wait. And when he asked the adult on the bus if he could go to the bathroom, he said the adult ignored him.

Finally his transfer came, but he said the ride was long and miserable.

“I was feeling tired, annoyed with everything, scared because I didn’t know where I was,” he said.

He finally arrived home at 7 p.m., just shy of 4 hours after he left school. According to his mom, Chelsea Pierce, Morris collapsed in tears after he descended the bus stairs.

Pierce says she was fortunate her son had a cell phone during the commute. She knew where he was, and he was able to contact his friend and seatmate’s mother. That became crucial when Morris said the driver forced his friend to get off at the wrong stop.

“She literally left him in a neighborhood he had no idea where he was, and left the child in tears sitting on a street corner,” Pierce said.

Pierce said the boy’s mother was able to make it to him 15 minutes later, but she wouldn’t have known where he was were it not for his eleven-year-old friend.

In a video statement JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio called the transportation debacle “unacceptable” and promised to take the next four days to correct course.

Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Diane Porter said the board would be asking for a “full accounting” of what happened.

She said she still has “confidence” in Pollio and his team to “correct this untenable situation.”

Roberto Roldan contributed to this reporting.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.