Cold Lake mom says school bus mishap left 5-year-old daughter wandering streets alone

A Cold Lake mother is calling for changes to supervision at her daughter's school, after the five-year-old missed her school bus after class and wandered off school property before being found nearly an hour later.

On Tuesday morning, Lesley O'Leary drove her daughter, Sophia, to kindergarten at École Holy Cross Elementary School.

The little girl was supposed to take the bus home after class, but she never made it on.

O'Leary said once her daughter leaves the school's cloak room, she's left unsupervised until she gets on the bus. On Tuesday afternoon, the little girl decided she wanted to play on the slide in front of the boot room.

When she eventually went to catch her bus, it was already gone, so she decided to walk home, O'Leary said.

Sophia left the school grounds and was found about two blocks away, nearly an hour after class was dismissed. 

"She made it all the way to the end of the street which connects to the downtown area in Cold Lake, which isn't the safest place. Lots of cars," O'Leary said.

 Sophia was found by her bus driver, who O'Leary said figured something wasn't right. 

"After she finished her route, she decided to go back to the school to try to figure things out and she found her at the corner," she said. 

She thinks the fact her daughter didn't take the morning bus may have contributed to the confusion.

"Her bus driver didn't think anything of it because she wasn't on the bus that morning, so she didn't expect her to be on that evening either," O'Leary said. 

But she said the fault lies with her daughter's school, not with the driver. 

"The problem is the way their system works at Holy Cross," O'Leary said about the lack of supervision between the cloak room and the bus.

Buses 'clustered' in front of school

At the beginning of the year, students are supervised while they board their buses until they become accustomed to the routine, O'Leary said.

"They're trying to prepare them for the next school years, when they don't have that direct supervision," she said, adding she thinks that's too much responsibility for a five-year-old. 

"I don't even allow my child to be outside alone at home."

O'Leary said the front of the school is "clustered" with about 10 buses lined up before and after school, which can lead to confusion.

"There's hundreds of parents waiting to pick up their kids," she said. "They have no idea if those kids are going with their parents, could be a stranger, could be anybody."

O'leary told CBC News that she initially thought her daughter may have gone with a friend on another school bus. She began to panic when she realized that wasn't the case.

"There's all kinds of things that go through your head. Was she abducted? Is she OK? Is she safe?" O'Leary said.

School principal Will Baker confirmed the incident and said the school has taken steps to ensure it doesn't happen again.

In a statement to CBC News on Sunday, Lakeland Catholic School District Superintendent Joe Arruda said he had spoken with Baker and the mother of the student. 

"All that I can say is that a student missed the bus and decided to walk home," Arruda wrote. "We have put steps in place to make sure that similar incidents do not occur in the future.

"Both Principal Baker and I have apologized to the mother of the child for this unfortunate incident."

O'Leary said Baker told her they've found a grade four student who will be Sophia's "buddy" and make sure she gets on the bus.

She said she was also promised additional supervision, but when she picked up her daughter from the school on Friday, that wasn't the case.

"I was told there would be two supervisors outside with the bus kids, but there was just one," O'Leary said, adding that it was also at least five minutes after the kids were dismissed before the supervisor came outside.

She plans to follow up with the district superintendent on Monday.

In the meantime, O'Leary is teaching her child to go to the school office whenever she's unsure of what to do — something she hopes the school will also reinforce.