Luciana Gomez started the week with news no parent ever wants to hear: her 4-year-old autistic son had wandered off on his own after being left unattended on a school bus. Although he was recovered safely minutes later, she is outraged that it happened.
The mother of two said her husband received the call on Monday afternoon from the principal at Positive Beginnings, her son’s school in Middle Village, Queens.
The call was to let them know that minutes after their son got on the school bus to be driven home around 1 p.m., the bus had broken down just feet away from the school on Metropolitan Avenue. While transferring the children from one bus to another, Gomez’s son Nicolas, who is high functioning, but unable to converse with people, walked away on his own.
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According to Gomez, what infuriated her and her husband was that not only was her son able to wander off alone — but no one seemed to notice or do anything about it.
“We went crazy,” Gomez said.
Four-year-old Nicolas was found by a school aide walking behind a couple and their children. She apparently asked the man and woman if they knew Nicolas and when they said no, she took him back to the school.
At the school the principal, Mindi Messinger, said she was horrified when she found out what happened with Nicolas and also with the fact that the school was not notified that the bus — which was carrying all children with special needs — had broken down.
“It’s a principal’s worst nightmare to think any of the children are in danger,” Messinger said.
On Tuesday, Gomez and her husband went to see Messinger and watched footage of the incident. According to Gomez, in the video you can see the new bus arrive and the driver of the broken down bus makes his way onto the new one.
Then the matron on the bus, who is there to help out with the children, is shown handing over two to three children at a time. She then returns to the bus, where Nicolas had remained, and retrieves the backpacks of the students.
During this time, you see Nicolas walk off the bus, wander away and approach two little children who were walking with their parents. Nicolas continues to walk down Metropolitan Avenue, a heavily traveled thoroughfare before going out of the camera's view.
About 90 seconds later, according to Messinger, you see the 4-year-old coming back with the school aide.
After being notified, Messinger said she walked with Nicolas toward the bus — which appeared to be getting ready to drive away — and she asked the driver if he was missing someone.
The principal said the driver replied, “We were wondering where Nicolas went.”
The young boy was then driven home and the parents were never told until Messinger made the call to notify them.
“It’s disgusting because why do we have to wait for another child to go missing,” said Gomez. “Haven’t we learned as a society and a community the importance of safety?”
According to Gomez, they have opened an investigation with the city’s Department of Education and also attempted to contact the local police precinct and a lawyer. However, the NYPD and lawyer have told them that because Nicolas was found safe, nothing else can be done.
Gomez said that she refuses to put her son back on the bus and does not trust the bus company anymore. She said that now her family has had to readjust their schedules to make sure someone is always with Nicolas, taking him home and picking him up.
“We’re so mentally exhausted. We knocked on so many doors but they say he’s fine,” she said. “It feels like nobody cares.”
Gomez added that they do not care about any monetary compensation but instead want there to be some sort of punishment because she believes it shouldn’t take a tragedy — like that of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old with autism, whose body was found in the East River months after running away from his school in Long Island City — for there to be change.
“We tend to forget very easy. It takes another tragedy for us as a community and a society to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we should pay more attention to our kids,’” Gomez said.
A spokesman for Alina Services Corp. — the bus company involved in the incident — was unavailable for comment despite several attempts by Metro to reach him. Messinger said that the company is very concerned.
“The bus company seems to be taking it very seriously, what their results will be I don’t know,” Messinger said. “They definitely know how disturbed we are and the family is.”
Toya Holness, spokeswoman for the DOE, also confirmed that the agency is looking into the case and investigating all the events that led to Nicolas being left unattended.
"We are investigating a bus incident that took place in front of a school in Queens. We take this allegation very seriously and will ensure that it is addressed appropriately,” Holness said. “The safety and security of students and staff is our top priority."