MADISON, Wis. — Anthony Watson, 5, barely stops moving. Darting up and down the sidewalk by the Holiday Inn near downtown Madison, his parents say his constant energy is just one of many reasons they can’t figure out how a bus driver managed to leave him behind in the bus after finishing the route.
Anthony himself didn’t seem too concerned. Was he scared? “No,” he responds.
Did anyone ever teach him how to open a bus emergency exit door before? “Nope. I’m a genius.”
And brave, too. But he’s not responsible for making sure he’s dropped off at the right bus stop, and Anthony’s father Antonio Watson and father’s girlfriend Amber Hanmer have a lot of questions for those who are. Anthony never got dropped off Wednesday evening after school, leaving Watson in a panic at the bus stop while Anthony himself sat for about an hour alone on the bus after it was parked for the night.
He figured out the exit and from there, it’s hard to piece together how he got to Rusk Avenue, where a stranger found him and brought him to the Holiday Inn near the Alliant Energy Center.
“I was walking in the grass,” he says with a shrug. “Someone saw me walking.”
The incident sparked investigations from the Madison Metropolitan School District as well as Badger Bus, the company contracted to drive their students to school and back each day. The company fired the driver and the on-board attendant, co-owner John Meier said Friday, and tightened safety policies so that staff would now have to review proper procedures on a daily basis. Police said criminal charges weren’t pending; MMSD said there had been no malicious intent.
But Watson and Hanmer say they have questions left unanswered yet by both the district and the bus company.
“It was mind-blowing they couldn’t contact the bus driver right away,” Hanmer said. One of the first things they did after Anthony wasn’t dropped off at the right time and place Wednesday Evening was to contact the staff for his school, Lake View Elementary. Teachers there said they had checked Anthony onto the bus after school. No one, however, seemed to be able to contact the driver. (MMSD had not yet responded to News 3 Now questions about whether staff are able to directly contact bus drivers.)
“We should be able to know every part of the journey of the bus ride,” Hanmer said. But perhaps biggest of all is the question of how Anthony came to be left behind when the driver and attendant finished the route and parked the bus for the night. They never came to his bus stop, just five minutes from his school, Antonio said. There were only seven students on the bus that night.
Badger Bus hadn’t answered specific questions about their policies or the investigation at time of publishing. In a statement issued Friday morning, however, they said staff were supposed to conduct bus checks after routes and upon return to base.
“All employees undergo thorough training that includes the proper procedures for loading and unloading students that ride the Badger Bus,” Meier said in a statement. “This training includes doing post-trip inspections of the inside of the bus after each route and at the return to base to make sure all students have been unloaded.”
MMSD said in a statement that their contract was specifically worded to prevent these kinds of incidents, and they had ensured the bus company employees responsible were fired.
“To have a child left alone in this way is something no family or student should have to experience,” a spokesperson wrote.
Antonio and girlfriend Amber Hanmer have mountains of gratitude for the stranger who found him, who police told them didn’t want to be named. They don’t know who she is, but she found and protected him on a side of town where no one wants a small child near the busy roads.
“Anyone who knows Madison knows this road is very busy; he could have been hit by a car,” she said. “There are so many things that could have happened.”
The family said they still hasn’t heard from the bus company as of mid-afternoon Friday, despite Badger Bus issuing a public statement Friday morning. They’re waiting on details about procedures–and footage from the bus, they said.
“We are deeply saddened and disturbed by this incident and are thankful for the assistance provided by the police,” Meier wrote. “Our apologies go out to the parents, MSCR staff at Lake View, and the Madison School district for this regrettable incident.” Badger Bus provides school transportation to the Madison Metropolitan School District, as well as the Verona School District. The company also operates transportation services on routes between Madison, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.
“Why did nobody find him?” Hanmer asked. “Why did nobody realize he was on the bus when he was the only one left on the bus? That’s their job.”
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