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Two children left unattended on bus

FARGO — Two Fargo schoolchildren were left unattended in a Valley Bus school bus in the firm’s parking lot Thursday morning when the driver failed to check the vehicle before leaving it.

Fortunately, the bus was left running.

The temperature at Fargo’s Hector International Airport was 23 degrees below zero at 6:53 a.m., and had only risen to about 13 below zero by 10:53 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.

Both children were found safe — though apparently at two different times — and each was taken to Hawthorne Elementary School, officials from the Fargo School District and Valley Bus said.

The news did little to calm Amanda Engst, whose 5-year-old son, Preston Engst, got on the bus across from her house at 7:20 a.m.

She thought he’d have a safe, warm day at school, until she got a call at 9 a.m. from Hawthorne.

He was finally found on the bus about 10:30 a.m., she said.

“They asked why he wasn’t in school. And I said, ‘Ah, he should be!’” she said.

“I’m extremely not happy right now. There will be complaints made. This is not cool,” Engst said. “If I would have left him in my car unattended for even 10 minutes, I would have had him taken away from me.”

Fargo School District Business Manager Broc Lietz confirmed that two children did not get off the bus after the morning route was run.

Lietz said the driver left the bus running in the bus yard at Valley Bus. As the driver exited the bus, another driver saw a child peering out a window on the door of the bus and reported that to Valley Bus.

That child, who was not identified, was taken off the bus and transported to Hawthorne Elementary, Lietz said.

The second child, Preston, was discovered in a search later on the same bus, Lietz said.

Lietz said he was told the driver failed to follow protocol in checking the bus before leaving it.

Also, electronic warning systems that remind drivers to check their buses didn’t engage, he said.

“The buses are equipped with an alarm system. When the bus is shut off, a beeper goes off to remind the driver to inspect the bus,” Lietz said. “When a protocol is not followed, an alarm goes off if the walk-through is not done. Because the bus was running, neither of those devices was activated.”

Both children were spared from the intense cold that gripped the area.

“The bus was running. The children were safe. The bus was warm. So they weren’t left out in the cold,” Lietz said.

Preston apparently fell asleep and told his mother “somebody woke me up.”

“It was cold this morning and he’s 5. And he was left unattended,” Amanda Engst said.

She said she wants to know what sort of discipline the driver will face.

“I trust them with my kids and this happens. It’s like, really?” Engst said.

John McLaughlin, general manager of Valley Bus, confirmed that the two children had been left on the bus, despite protocols set up to prevent such an occurrence.

“It was driver error” by an experienced driver, McLaughlin said. “He should have done the walk-through.”

He said the company runs more than 100 buses and hauls more than 4,000 children a day to and from area schools.

“We’re going to go with all of our drivers over the procedures again,” McLaughlin said.

He said he is still considering what sort of disciplinary measures to take with the driver.

“This is a very serious, serious thing. It’s something we train against,” McLaughlin said. “We have electronic systems to keep it from happening, but it happened anyway.”

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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