Saskatchewan

Sask. parents 'terrified' after son with autism was missing for 1 hour after bus driver left without him

A Saskatoon mom and dad are angry that their nine-year-old son with autism went missing for an hour after they say his bus driver “abandoned” him.

Bus company says no formal plan was in place for child, but there is one now

Brittany De Sa is still shaken up after her nine-year-old son Hunter Bergemann, who has autism, went missing for an hour after school last week. Hunter's parents say the bus driver 'abandoned' him. (Submitted by Brittany De Sa)

A Saskatoon mom and dad are angry that their nine-year-old son went missing for an hour after they say his bus driver "abandoned" him.

The bus company, Hertz Northern Bus Lines, says the driver is not at fault because there was no formal plan in place for the child, who has autism. However, they have now created a protocol for Hunter Bergemann to prevent this from happening again.

Brittany De Sa said her son, Hunter, "was having a bad day" on Wednesday and didn't want to board the bus after school. Her seven-year-old son, Damien, tried to convince Hunter to get on the bus, but was unsuccessful. She said Damien then notified the bus driver, but that the driver still left without Hunter.

"The bus just left and my son was already walking," Brittany said.

"Then I found out later in the evening, that the bus drove right past my son and my son was waving at the bus and he just kept going."

Hunter wandered for an hour, walking close to two-and-a-half kilometres, when it was -21 C with the windchill. 

Parents assumed the driver would try

Brittany and her husband, Andriano De Sa, who is Hunter's stepfather, say this is the second school year that the bus driver has driven Hunter, and that they notified him last year that Hunter has autism.

"He just needs a little bit of understanding and care," Andriano recalled telling the driver. 

The bus company, however, said it wasn't aware that Hunter has autism. 

Hunter and his cat, Zelda. (Brittany De Sa)

"Whether that was recorded or not, I don't know," Andriano said. "But they know Hunter. They know our kids because it's the same driver."

"For him to not think about it for a second, I'm floored."

Brittany and Andriano say they assumed the driver would have put in an effort to get Hunter to board the bus, or notify his parents.

'Not feasible' to track which students ride each trip

Unless there is a plan in place — in partnership with the school and the family — that gives specific instructions for students that require a "greater degree of supervision," bus drivers do not monitor whether the kids are on the bus or not, Jeff Haines, Hertz Northern Bus Lines branch manager, wrote in an email to CBC News. 

"We now have a plan in place for this bus to prevent a similar situation in the future."

The Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS) division, which Hunter's school is a part of, said "it's simply not feasible for a driver to track which students are supposed to ride each trip."

Derrick Kunz, the divisions' communications consultant, reiterated that GSCS works with families and the bus company to make a plan if "there are special circumstances that require closer monitoring."

Student safety before and after school is a shared responsibility, Kunz said.

"As stated in our administrative policy for supervision during non-instruction time, the standard of care offered by staff is that of a reasonable, prudent parent."

Hunter and his stepfather, Andriano De Sa. (Brittany De Sa)

Andriano said there are usually two teachers that stand at the front entrance of Hunter's school to supervise children as they get on the bus — about 50 yards away.

"I'm not even entirely sure they can keep an eye on all of the kids that are over by the bus," he said. "Obviously, they're not keeping track of the kids that are or are not getting on the bus."

'Any kid can have a bad day'

Andriano and Brittany say that even though they didn't arrange a protocol in advance with the school and the bus company, they put their trust in the school and thought the driver would have made a better judgment call.

Andriano said he hopes the driver "understands that he made a bad choice."

He said the bus company has now recorded that Hunter has autism and that if he refuses to get on the bus in the future, the driver will dispatch the school to get a teacher to keep him safe until a parent picks him up.

Andriano said it's "fairly concerning" that this protocol isn't in place for all young students. 

"Any kid can have a bad day," he said. "It could end worse for any child, not just mine."

'We were all crying'

Brittany and Andriano couldn't help but think of the worst-case scenarios during the hour when Hunter was missing. 

"It could have ended with him in a river. It could have ended with him being kidnapped. It could have ended any other way. It's just thoughts you don't ever want to have to have," Andriano said.

Brittany recalled being "an absolute mess."

"I was terrified. I was pacing up and down my house, waiting for my husband to call, calling him every few minutes, seeing if he'd heard anything," she said.

When she discovered Hunter was missing, she called Andriano, who was on his way home from work. He went to the school, and banged on the doors, hoping to find Hunter. Andriano also called the police to file a missing persons report. He then drove up and down streets near the school.

Hunter's and Damien's teachers also drove around looking for him. He was eventually found about one kilometre from the school, after walking about two-and-a-half kilometres, and was very scared and cold, according to Hunter's parents. 

"When he got home, I couldn't let go of him. He was crying, I was crying, my husband was crying," Brittany said.

"We were all crying. We were so relieved he was home and that he was safe."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yasmine Ghania is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, currently based in Saskatoon.

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