Four-year-old Toronto boy disappears for hours after school-bus mixup

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
There was some damage visible on side of the school bus but no reports of any significant injuries. In fact, kids could be heard singing inside the bus.

Two things jumped out at me in the story of a little Toronto boy who went missing Monday, sparking a massive police search.

Those things were "four-year-old" and "school bus."

I know things have changed a lot since I was a tot, back when telephones had dials and there were only two channels on the big black and white console TV in the living room.

Working parents today put infants into daycare and provinces like Ontario offer all-day kindergarten ostensibly to give them a running start into grade school.

But the idea of plunking an unescorted four-year-old child onto a school bus brings me up short.

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Apparently Angelo Epassa, who lives with his parents and three-year-old sister in suburban Etobicoke, was put on the school bus by his mum around 8 a.m. Monday to attend kindergarten at a local French immersion school.

But he didn't arrive and the school called his home to find out where he was.

"It was just a horrible day," dad Yannick Epassa told the Toronto Star. "I was just imagining scenarios in my head. It’s crazy, what could have happened to him."

Toronto police issued a news release asking the public's help in locating Angelo.

Several hours later Angelo was discovered safe, at a different school a couple of kilometres from the one he attended.

It began with a simple mixup at the beginning of the day. Two school buses trundle through the neighbourhood where the Epassas recently moved. Angelo's mother, Nathalie, put him on the wrong one, which belonged to a private school.

The confusion was compounded by the fact it was the first day back at school after the holidays and the private school was expecting some new students. Staff assumed Angelo was one of them even though he told them he was in the wrong place.

"He actually said he told them, 'This is not my school,'" Yannick Epassa told the Star.

The school also had a French immersion program and Angelo happily took part.

"He attended, had a great day at school, learned French, did what he had to do as a junior kindergarten," Toronto police Sgt. Angelo Costa told the Star.

The school didn't realize the mistake until the end of the day. Reporters couldn't reach school officials for comment but Angelo's parents criticized staff for their apparently casual approach to who was attending the school.

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"It is time for the schools now to be very serious when it comes to children, for the safety of the children," Nathalie Epassa, an early childhood education teacher herself, told the Toronto Sun. "Whenever you see anybody who is not from your school, you have to get involved. Right away, be aware."

For me there's a larger question of whether we're pushing very young children out into the wider world too soon.

Angelo seemed pretty cool about things but it could easily have ended badly. He could have, for instance, wandered away to find his real school.

I'm not saying we need to escort kids to and from school until they graduate high school. But four seems a bit young to be entrusted to the somewhat impersonal care of a big-city school systems.

Coincidentally, another four-year-old child went missing after school the same day but was found within a few minutes after walking home by himself, the Star said.

Maybe it's time to rethink the system.