Parents want bus matrons

May 17 incident could galvanize residents in Lawrence district


Angered by a May 17 incident in which the mother of a pre-kindergartner was allowed to take her daughter and another girl off a Lawrence School district bus, a group of parents are calling on the district to hire bus matrons for general-education students, and especially the youngest children the district transports.

Last month, Megan Arias took her daughter off the bus after learning through a GPS tracker in the girl’s backpack that the bus driver had circled the same Cedarhurst streets at least three times. Arias drove to meet the bus, and the driver, failing to follow district rules, opened the bus door for her at Rugby Road and Rockaway Turnpike. Arias took not only her daughter, but also another pre-kindergartner who latched onto her, and drove both girls to the Lawrence Early Childhood Center at the Number Four School.

Diane Portillo, the mother of the second child, posted on Facebook that the driver should not have allowed either girl to get off the bus. According to district officials, the Independent Coach Company, whose buses transport Lawrence district students, fired the driver, Joe DeResto.

“The driver did not ask for any identification from the parent,” said Pablo Portillo, the child’s father, who addressed a group of parents at the June 4 Five Towns Hispanic Association meeting. “It could have been a predator, a pedophile. It’s unacceptable.” The Portillo family lives in Cedarhurst.

In a statement, the bus company’s risks manager, Michael Sperber, said, “At Independent Coach, the safety of all our passengers and students is our top priority. Any time we receive word of a potential incident or problem, we immediately take steps to investigate the situation. In regards to the incident in question, we have been working diligently with all members of the school districts team at both the administration and school.” Before the statement was issued, Sperber said that all the rules are posted and the drivers are reminded of them.

The Portillos also said that the matter was not addressed until May 18, when they met with Frank Zangari, the principal of the Lawrence Early Childhood Center, and Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Feder, who is also the district’s transportation supervisor. Arias did not attend that meeting.

“I think within 24 hours there was a sit-down with the assistant superintendent and building principal to discuss the ongoing investigation,” Lawrence Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen said. “When I met with Mrs. Portillo, all the parents were aware of what happened. I directed the principal to contact the parents. That had not been done.”

The parents said they want bus matrons and increased communication from district officials. Matrons are posted on Lawrence buses with special-needs children who have individualized educational plans — a written statement of the program to meet the child’s needs — Pedersen said. Matrons for general education students were eliminated at least 15 years ago, district officials said.

“My daughter said to [Arias], ‘Please take me, I’m scared,’” Diane Portillo said at the Hispanic Association. “Our babies need to be watched.” She added that she had called officials in the Oceanside and Valley Stream school districts, and was told that both have matrons for younger children.

Petersen said that Lawrence, unlike many districts, has “house stops”: Buses stop directly in front of the homes of pre-K and kindergarten students. “I don’t think having a matron would have made for a different outcome,” she said, referring to the May 17 incident. “There was an error, the bus driver made an error. I never actually came across this before. Usually when someone approaches the bus, the driver talks to them through the window.”

Inwood resident Bib Baksh said that the bus incident could be a “tipping point” to galvanize parents. Several parents at the Hispanic Association meeting said that they planned to attend a Board of Education meeting on Monday, but the meeting was rescheduled for Thursday, at the Little Theater at Lawrence High School, at 8 p.m.

Saying that Petersen is “excellent” and Lawrence Elementary School Principal Rina Beach does a good job, Natasha Shepard, of Inwood, the mother of a third-grader, said that the bus matron issue needed to be “addressed together as a community,” and that she hoped that future meetings could be a “bridge for dialogue” to solve this issue.

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