School Bus Operator Pledges Changes After Death of Student

About five days after a student with autism was found dead on a Whittier school bus, the charter company that operates it announced Wednesday several changes it would implement to prevent anyone from being forgotten on a bus.

Tom DeLapp, spokesman for Pupil Transportation Cooperative said said the company was immediately taking steps aimed at improving safety on buses and ensuring that the vehicles are thoroughly checked to ensure no passengers are still aboard.

According to DeLapp, the company 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.

"We are in mourning as an organization," DeLapp 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."

Hun Joon "Paul" Lee, 19, of Whittier, was found unresponsive around 4:15 p.m. Friday 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 near Sierra Vista High School at about 8:30 a.m. Friday, 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. The company's board has voted to donate $10,000 to the family to help cover funeral and other costs, he said.

"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."

The company 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 Friday morning was a "cover driver," who he described as a seasoned veteran who covers various routes due to absences or shift changes. The PTC 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."

 City News Service contributed to this report.

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