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Bus driver, aide fired after pupil left behind

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Baltimore school bus driver was fired yesterday after a 6-year-old blind girl spent several terrifying hours inside a locked yellow bus that was circled by snarling attack dogs on a deserted lot.

Also fired in the Thursday incident was the driver's aide, who is responsible for making sure that all disabled and special education pupils are delivered home safely.

Police said prosecutors are considering filing criminal charges, possibly next week, against the former employees of a private contractor that could include child neglect and leaving a child unattended.

Chanta Watson spent hours aboard Bus No. 1101 Thursday afternoon and into the night after the driver and aide overlooked the frail, quiet child sitting in the back. When the girl was finally rescued by police, the first-grader was cold, trembling, hysterical and bruised.

"It is by the grace of God that the doors did not open because the dogs would have gotten her," said her aunt and guardian, Deborah Miller, who was reunited with Chanta at Johns Hopkins Hospital Thursday night.

The child, who lives with Miller in the 4400 block of Moravia Road in Northeast Baltimore, was released after being treated for bruises and effects of the cold.

The bus company's firing of the employees, which was demanded by the city schools, came amid complaints from parents who described a haphazard transportation system that they said rarely delivers their disabled children on time, or even to the same place each day.

Chanta was rescued by police officers who traced her steps from Garrett Heights Elementary School, where teacher Karen Nicholas put her on the bus at 3:40 p.m., to the company's lot in the 1800 block of N. Patterson Park Ave., eight hours later.

The child normally arrives home between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Miller called police about 7:30 p.m. and reported her niece missing.

At 10:30 p.m., officers acting on a hunch that Chanta might still be on the bus, used a ladder to scale a 15-foot-high concrete wall and peered into a line of buses parked for the night. They spotted Bus 1101, and then saw Chanta sleeping on a back seat.

They stretched another ladder from the top of the wall to the top of the bus, about 5 feet away. A firefighter and Eastern District Officer Daniel Hersl crawled along the ladder, over the barking dogs and pulled the girl to safety through a rooftop escape hatch.

"We were not going to go home until we found that child," said Officer Louis J. Averella Jr., part of the rescue team.

The incident comes after several similar problems in Baltimore and Harford counties, where six children have been left behind on buses since last year, prompting firings and suspensions.

Valencia Baker, interim director of transportation for Baltimore schools, said that in addition to the firings, Kim's Bus Service has been stripped of nearly half its 11 routes, including Chanta's school.

Kim's, owned by Mark Kim, is one of 22 contractors hired by the school system to transport special-needs children. Baker said the company has had no prior problems. "Kim is one our more dependable contractors," she said.

Mark Kim did not respond to several phone calls and messages left on his cellular phone, pager and work numbers. The company's nondescript office is in the back of Maryland Cash and Carry, a group of food supply stores and other shops surrounded by a concrete wall posted with signs warning about dogs and alarms.

Taped to a wall inside the cluttered office are a list of the city's red-light camera locations, safety reminders and a summary of traffic citations filed by police against employees.

The fired driver was identified in a police report as Keith Thompson, 53. The same report listed the aide as Rosetta Williams, 51. Neither could be reached for comment at their East Baltimore homes yesterday.

The police report quotes Kim as saying that "Mr. Thompson advised that he was not even aware that Chanta Watson was on his bus and as a result he didn't stop at her house."

Baker said the rules are clear: "Our school bus drivers are expected to do a post-trip inspection any time that they ... off-load children."

She said those requirements were reiterated after the incidents in Baltimore County.

"They signed a paper about that last year indicating that they were aware of the policy and the consequences if that policy was not followed," Baker said.

Parents and guardians said they are worried and noted many previous complaints. Ashley Krieg, 5, also blind, reportedly fell out of her seat twice on the way to Garrett Heights Elementary School and suffered a bloody nose.

"My kid is not safe," said her guardian, Matthew Miller, the boyfriend of the girl's mother. "They just don't care."

Karen Wiles said her blind grandson, Zachariah, 5, a classmate of Chanta's, also has fallen off his seat on the bus. "There's no type of restraint such as seatbelts, car seats," she said. "These children are falling off the seats."

Chanta's aunt, Deborah Miller, said she also had reservations about the bus company. She said her niece, whom she has raised since the girl's mother died of a heart attack, never arrives home at the same time and is rarely dropped off in the same place.

Sometimes the bus pulls into the parking lot of their apartment complex. Other times, it stops across the street on busy Moravia Road. Chanta gets home one to two hours after classes end, even though she lives a mile and a half from school.

That's why Miller wasn't too alarmed when her niece was late Thursday afternoon. Shortly after 6 p.m., she called another relative who sometimes picks up Chanta from the bus. But that wasn't the case this time.

By 7:30 p.m., she panicked and dialed 911. Officer Michael Taylor was the first to respond, and the search began. Police said they started as they always do - going door to door in the neighborhood and calling school officials.

They reached Garrett's principal, Yetty Kearney, and the teacher, Nicholas, from whom they learned the name of the bus company and the bus number. Several attempts to reach Kim failed, police said.

About 10:30 p.m., police went to the Patterson Park Avenue address. They reached Kim by phone, but decided to look inside before he arrived. From the top of a wall near a trash-filled alley, an officer spotted Bus 1101 backed into a stall and saw Chanta.

After being pulled through the roof, the frightened child - who was sobbing so hard she couldn't speak - was taken to Hopkins for treatment of bruises, apparently suffered when she banged into a door or interior wall while stumbling around the empty bus.

Her coat was filthy and pants stained.

Miller arrived at the hospital and raced down a hall, following Chanta's crying until she found the observation room and clutched her niece. The little girl faced television cameras yesterday but had few words.

Relatives said she only talks about the barking dogs, a German shepherd and a Rottweiler.

Chanta is now scared to be left alone. She screamed when Miller left her alone briefly to get a tissue.

The child stayed home from school yesterday.

In a final act of irony, the bus arrived on time to pick her up.

Sun staff writer Erika Niedowski contributed to this article.

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