Mom of special-needs student left behind on freezing school bus calls for more safeguards

Jacqueline Petricca is speaking out after her daughter, Bianca Gallant, was left on a freezing school bus Monday in London, Ont. The five-year-old had fallen asleep and the driver didn't notice she was still there. (Kate Dubinski/CBC - image credit)
Jacqueline Petricca is speaking out after her daughter, Bianca Gallant, was left on a freezing school bus Monday in London, Ont. The five-year-old had fallen asleep and the driver didn't notice she was still there. (Kate Dubinski/CBC - image credit)

The mother of a five-year-old girl left behind on a freezing school bus for almost two hours in London, Ont., is calling for more safeguards so other children aren't forgotten by the drivers.

"We were worried about her safety. We have to move forward from this event, but it's super traumatic and it shouldn't have happened," said Jacqueline Petricca about the incident Monday involving her daughter, Bianca Gallant, who's in senior kindergarten at École élémentaire catholique Sainte-Jeanne-d'Arc. "Protocols should be in place to watch our special-needs children."

Bianca fell asleep on the bus, but the driver didn't notice. He parked the bus, which is operated by Murphy Bus Lines, in front of his home and signed off for the day.

"I know that mistakes happen and that it was an accident. I hope that he knows that we're not angry with him and that we forgive him. He's an older gentleman that really cared about his riders," Petricca said. "But how are we going to protect our drivers and children in the future to keep this from happening?"

The bus driver has been fired, said Murphy Bus Lines owner Rob Murphy.

"It's very unfortunate that this happened. Obviously, the driver didn't perform his duties as expected," he said.

Drivers are supposed to double check to ensure no one is left on a bus, Murphy added. Petricca said she's been given assurances there will be a second adult along with the driver on the bus carrying Bianca to keep an eye on the students. Currently, Bianca and another student ride the bus, which is smaller than a standard school bus.

'It was terrifying'

The bus usually drops Bianca off in front of the family's home at 4:10 p.m. The bus stop can be seen from the home's kitchen window. When she didn't arrive Monday by 4:30, Petricca phoned Franco Bus, the consortium that oversees school bus transportation to London's French-language schools.

Kate Dubinski/CBC
Kate Dubinski/CBC

"It was terrifying," Petricca said. "We had every worry in the world. We didn't know where she was, who she was with, how she was doing, and time just kept passing."

Franco Bus contacted Bianca's school, which confirmed she was on the correct bus. Murphy Bus Lines' information showed the driver had logged off for the night, so they tracked the bus by GPS to where it was parked. Bianca's parents went to pick her up with a police escort.

CBC reached out to the school board, Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, which said in a statement that it was "made aware of the incident involving one of our students."

"We have received confirmation through the transportation consortium, which is responsible for all transportation-related matters, that the situation has been addressed and appropriate measures have been taken. The school is ensuring that the student receives the support necessary following this unfortunate incident."

Petricca said that by the time Bianca was found on the bus, "it was dark out. She was worried.

"We got home and usually Bianca is a kid that jumps, skips, hops, twirls and is really really excited all the time. And last night, she was passive, quiet. She had trouble falling asleep."

Bianca told her mom she woke up on the bus and didn't know where she was. "When we got there, Murphy had her in their car, heated up so she wouldn't be cold. She went right from that lady's arms into my arms and didn't want to be put down," Petricca said.

Police gave Bianca a stuffed dog and did a great job keeping the family calm, Petricca said.

"I appreciate that it was taken to the utmost seriousness," she said. "We just need to prevent this and keep these special-needs children safe in the future."

The bus should have a motion sensor that would turn on heat if someone is left aboard, as well as a check-child button at the back of the vehicle that the driver has to disarm before signing off for the day, Petricca said.

"I'm told by Franco Bus that since it's a wheelchair bus, they can't install those, but considering these are special-needs buses, you'd think they would have all the safety precautions installed on them that the buses that regular riders get to ride on do."

CBC News called Franco Bus, then sent an email Tuesday afternoon for comment.