East Edition Herald American

School bus driver sentenced in student passenger’s death

NORWALK — A school bus driver who left an autistic 19-year-old man alone in a locked vehicle on a hot summer day, leading to his death and triggering a new state law aimed at preventing such tragedies, was sentenced Jan. 30 to two years in prison.

Armando Abel Ramirez, 37, pleaded guilty Jan. 6 to one count of dependent adult abuse resulting in death and admitted an allegation of proximately causing death to the victim.

Hun Joon “Paul” Lee was found on the floor of a parked bus in a Whittier bus yard on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2015. All of the windows on the bus were closed and the temperature that day was near 90 degrees, prosecutors said.

Lee rode the bus to a transition program at the Sierra Education Center that morning 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 contacted the Pupil Transportation Cooperative, leading to his discovery by the driver.

Investigators said Lee was unable to verbally communicate and needed special care.

Ramirez — a substitute driver for Lee’s bus who was working a split shift — apparently believed Lee had gotten off the bus to go to school that morning. But the driver did not walk to the back of the bus or look over his shoulder to check if anyone was left in the vehicle at the end of his morning shift, according to prosecutors.

He returned the bus to the bus yard, filled out paperwork, left for home and returned for work that afternoon, when he was notified by a dispatcher that Lee was missing.

Ramirez went back to the bus, found Lee unresponsive and called for help. Paramedics performed CPR, but Lee was pronounced dead at the scene.

Last September, the young man’s parents thanked Gov. Jerry Brown for signing legislation requiring school buses to be equipped with an alarm system to ensure passengers are not forgotten.

“Although we tragically lost our son Paul last year after he was left behind on a school bus for seven hours, we know that the signing of this bill is a warm hug from heaven that will enable all children who ride a school bus to arrive at their destination safely,” Eun Ha Lee, the young man’s mother, said then.

The bill, authored by state Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, requires school buses in California to be outfitted with child-safety alarms. The alarm system generates a noise when the bus is turned off, and the driver must walk to the rear of the bus to turn it off, ensuring that the vehicle is checked to determine if any children are still on board.

The bill also requires bus drivers to receive training in child-safety check procedures every year when they renew their bus driver safety certificate.