East Edition

School bus cooperative plans changes after student’s death

WHITTIER — The cooperative that operated a school bus on which an autistic man was found dead Sept. 11 after being left alone on the vehicle for an unknown amount of time said a series of changes are being implemented to prevent anyone from being forgotten on a bus again.

“We are in mourning as an organization,” said Tom DeLapp, a spokesman for Pupil Transportation Cooperative said, adding that “Friday, Sept. 11 has a whole new meaning for this PTC.”

“It was a disastrous event that is going to live in the memory of this organization for a long period of time,” he said.

Hun Joon “Paul” Lee, 19, of Whittier, was found unresponsive around 4:15 p.m. Sept. 11 aboard the bus, which was parked at the PTC bus depot at 9402 Greenleaf Ave., according to police and fire officials. Bus drivers who found him tried to perform CPR, as did paramedics who arrived at the scene, but Lee was pronounced dead.

According to police, Lee rode the bus to a transition program at the Sierra Education Center, operated by the Whittier Union High School District, near the bus depot at about 8:30 a.m. and should have boarded it to return home by 4 p.m. When he didn’t get home on time, his mother called the school district, which called Pupil Transportation, leading to his discovery by the driver.

It was unclear exactly how long Lee had been left alone on the bus on a day that the Southland was still coping with a nearly weeklong heat wave.

DeLapp declined to comment on whether PTC was accepting any responsibility for the death, saying the investigation was continuing and results of an autopsy were still pending. But he said the company was reaching out to Lee’s family.

Pupil Transportation Cooperative provides bus transportation services for the Whittier Union High School District and six other districts: the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera, Los Nietos School District in unincorporated Los Nietos, the Whittier City School District, the South Whittier City School, the East Whittier City School District and the Little Lake City School District in Santa Fe Springs.

The cooperative’s board has voted to donate $10,000 to the family to help cover funeral and other costs, he said.

He also said the cooperative also was taking steps aimed at improving safety on buses and ensuring that the vehicles are thoroughly checked to ensure no passengers are still aboard.

“This is a teachable moment for this organization,” he said. “The events that occurred and how they occurred give us a moment to reflect on what we do and how we do it. And there are some lessons to be learned here. We want to make sure that out of this teachable moment we can avoid tragedies like this in the future.”

According to DeLapp, the cooperative will immediately implement a “team checking system so no one individual can sign off on the fact a bus is clear.”

He said two adults will have to walk the bus before it is cleared.

The cooperative is also hiring a school-bus safety expert to “help advise us on whether we have the highest safety standards we can have.” It is also planning to outfit all of its buses with “electronic notification systems,” which require drivers to walk to the back of the bus before the vehicle can be cleared.

DeLapp said the driver who operated the bus in the morning of Sept. 11 was a “cover driver,” who he described as a seasoned veteran who covers various routes due to absences or shift changes. The cooperative has six cover drivers on staff, he said.

DeLapp also assured parents that their children are safe riding on PTC buses.

Bus drivers “do form strong relationships with the people that they drive,” he said. “The dispatchers and the drivers, they know these families, they talk to them. And in many respects, your bus driver is the first face that a student will see from the education system in the morning and it will be the last face they see at the end of the school day.”