The Cape Henlopen School District in Sussex County has made a string of troubling mistakes this year while attempting to place a kindergartner, Alondra Fuentes, on the correct bus at the end of the school day. This resulted in Alondra being dropped at a bus stop miles from where she was supposed to be, leading her to attempt walking home alone on the median strip of a busy highway.
This 6-year-old child was left alone at a bus stop, where no one knew she would be. She bravely tried to make her way home and ended up crossing the busy Coastal Highway while trying to avoid the cars and trucks whizzing by. Alone and terrified, she stolidly walked on. A good samaritan stopped, contacted police, and Alondra was reunited with her family.
If it had just happened once, that might have been the end of it. But this was not the first time the school district had failed to put Alondra on the right bus.
The first two incidents happened on the 29th and 30th of March of this year at Rehoboth Elementary School. Alondra was assigned the bus that drops students off at the Boys & Girls Club, where her younger brother is in daycare. Alondra’s mother, Adriana Bautista, picks up both children from the daycare at the end of her work day.
On March 29, however, Bautista said she received a call from the director of the Boys & Girls Club, telling her that Alondra had not been dropped off with the rest of the bus and asking if Bautista had picked her up from school that day. Bautista called the school to ascertain Alondra’s whereabouts, and was reassured by a secretary that Alondra was now on a bus to the Boys & Girls Club. They apologized for the mistake, and assured Bautista it would not happen again.
On March 30th, it happened again. This time Bautista spoke with the Vice Principal of Rehoboth Elementary, who again assured her the mistake would not happen again. Bautista had no choice but to hope they would care for her child and put Alondra on the correct bus. Alondra later confided to her mother that she was sitting in the cafeteria with a school employee, waiting for her bus to return to school and take her to the Boys & Girls Club. Bautista was never informed why her daughter was not placed on the correct bus in time.
Bautista and her family had a brief reprieve, until Monday June 28, 2021. Alondra was then in the school district’s summer program at Love Creek Elementary. This time, rather than not being put on a bus on time, Alondra was put on the wrong bus.
Students at each school in the district have assigned buses for both pickup and dropoff. In Alondra’s case, her pickup bus stop is the stop for her father’s housing community, and her dropoff bus stop is the Boys & Girls Club. (Daycares are allowed to be designated pickup or dropoff locations.)
On that Monday afternoon, Alondra was put on her pickup bus rather than her dropoff bus. When the bus got to the bus stop near her father’s house, there was no adult there to receive Alondra, as her father was, as expected, not home, and no one in her family had been alerted that she would be dropped off at that location. According to Cape Henlopen School District’s Department of Transportation, standard practice is that kindergartners are dropped off to a parent or approved adult. If no adult is present, then the school must try to contact the parents. If they are unable to do so, then the child must be taken back to the school.
The story Alondra shared with her mother, Bautista, shows Alondra’s desire to get to a safe place. Alondra first walked alone to her father’s house, which was locked, and tried to slide under the slightly-ajar garage door. However, it was not enough space for her to fit through, so she decided that she would walk to her mother’s house. She was hungry, she later told her mother.
According to Bautista, Alondra shared that multiple cars passed her as she navigated crossing the highway to attempt to walk along the median to her mother’s house. Finally, one of them stopped and called 911 for assistance. After the State Police picked up Alondra, they called Alondra’s father, Victor Fuentes. He then called the school and was told the school knew nothing about it; they had erroneously confirmed via a voicemail to Bautista that Alondra was put on the bus to go to the Boys & Girls Club after school that day.
Once alerted to this incident, Bautista called the school. The secretary she spoke to said, “I’m sorry your daughter was put on the wrong bus. Someone will call you back.” Bautista said she didn’t want to be called back; she wanted to talk to somebody now. She said she was transferred to another line that no one answered, so she left a voicemail.
Frustrated with the lack of answers from any of the caretakers assigned to Alondra’s well-being, Bautista shared the story with Alondra’s aunt, Tanya Hernandez. Hernandez posted on Facebook, pleading with the community for help in learning the full story of what happened and seeking accountability. Shortly after Hernandez’ post, the director of the summer school program finally called Bautista, explaining that Alondra’s teacher had apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again. Bautista said no other details were given to her.
Cape Henlopen School District’s response to specific questions from Delaware Call was limited to a statement including the following: “The child is safe and the District has been in touch with the child’s family. The District is reviewing all transportation protocols to insure that something of this nature does not occur in the future.”
Following the incident, Bautista, Fuentes, and Bautista’s mother spoke with Alondra, hearing from her what had happened after she was allowed off the bus without any adult present at the bus stop. Alondra began having recurring nightmares of losing her entire family in tragic deaths, and often cried in her sleep. Bautista was distraught at her daughter’s evidence of trauma from the experience, and continued pressing for answers from those in power.
Hernandez and Bautista visited State Police Troop 7 to get more information, but they were told that the officer who had picked up Alondra was not there, and they would have to call and leave a voicemail for him to get details from the case. They did so, and did not hear back over the course of the next day. They then called the trooper’s supervisor, who told them it was not negligent or reckless for the bus driver to drop Alondra off alone at the wrong bus stop, so there was nothing more for the police to do.
He told them the school would take care of it internally, and they just had to wait.
Hernandez also spoke with the director of the summer school program. “We understand you cannot give us details,” Hernandez told her, “But can you keep [Bautista] in the loop with what’s going on as you handle this internally?” Hernandez said the director assured her that she would “definitely” call Bautista to keep her updated. Hernandez also asked the director for the name of the individual to speak with from the bus company, as Cape Henlopen uses multiple contractors to run their bus system, according to their Contractor Bus List. After following that trail, the only information Hernandez and Bautista received regarding the bus driver was that he continued to be employed by the bus company, and continued driving students the day after abandoning Alondra at her bus stop.
Eventually, Cape Henlopen’s Assistant Superintendent, Jenny Naumann, met with Bautista and Hernandez. Bautista explained to Naumann that this was the third incident. She had done her part to speak with all the required staff at the school to try to ensure her daughter’s safety, but the school had neglected to maintain this assurance.
According to Bautista and Hernandez, Naumann mentioned that the school district had met with their staff as well as with their lawyers, and assured both women they would handle it internally. Bautista and Hernandez explained to Nauman that the response they were requesting was an apology from the school to Bautista and Fuentes.
They also requested an acknowledgement of the harm done to Alondra, and for the bus driver to be fired — as a bus driver willing to drop a kindergartner off with no adults around should not be driving young children. They left the meeting feeling confident that Naumann was truly concerned and would take decisive action, they shared.
The school district later informed the pair that they were unable to make any such apology due to the “tone” of Hernandez’s Facebook post the day of the incident, according to Hernandez.
Meanwhile, Bautista shared, Alondra is slowly recovering from the traumatic event. When she first came home, she tearfully told Bautista, “I’m sorry mommy that I got lost.” Bautista assured her that she did the right thing by trying to get home. But as Bautista and Bautista’s mother started talking about what had happened, Alondra covered her ears so she would not have to listen to the story. They then stopped talking about the event when Alondra was around, to protect her from reliving it.
Since then, the nightmares have lessened. “Alondra’s doing much better now,” Bautista said. “She’s trying not to remember what had happened.”
As Alondra tries to forget the day’s events, her parents and community continue trying to find justice for Alondra and other kids like her.
Since Bautista has been sharing her story, other parents have shared similar stories with her. Bautista said she did not realize events like this were so common, and how lucky most families get with lack of harm or trauma occurring to children in many of these cases. In one case, a mother shared that her two children were dropped off at the wrong bus stop. A neighbor saw the children walking around and got in touch with the mother before it turned into a worse situation.
One thing that stands out to Bautista is a discrepancy in which children’s cases are resolved quickly, and which ones drag out. One case she observed involved a white woman whose child was locked on a bus alone in the summer heat. Based on social media posts from the mother, the case was resolved within three days of complaining to the school, and she was satisfied with the outcome. Several weeks after what happened to Alondra, her family is still trying to get the school district to accept accountability and take corrective action with the bus driver. Alondra and both her parents are Hispanic.
After the school district failed to match their response to the gravity of the situation, Bautista and Hernandez tried to turn to the law for help. They reached out to two different lawyers, one of whom told them that taking the case would “create conflict” and so they could not. Bautista expressed frustration after hearing this, saying, “I don’t understand what kind of conflict.”
Bautista feels like nothing has been done to correct the bus driver’s behavior because Alondra is Hispanic and Alondra’s family is working class. “They want me to just stay quiet and let it go,” said Bautista. But she insists she will not stay quiet.
Bautista and Hernandez are joined in their search for accountability by community organizer Erika Gutiérrez and Hispanic activist Maria Beauchamp. Beauchamp is focused on the mental health of the children in cases like these. Beauchamp maintained that Alondra’s situation could have ended up much worse, and stated, “People need to be held accountable beyond the words, ‘I’m sorry’.”
Gutiérrez echoed a similar sentiment. “We require accountability, and schools that love their students,” she said. “When people come to me, we are going to help them. Their kids are everybody’s kids.”
As part of this push, Bautista is asking that bus schedules and a child’s status be more readily available. She has to work all day, and so cannot take phone calls from the school unless she is on her lunch break. However, if she could log into an application to check which bus her child was on and where the bus is on the route, that would both give her peace of mind and allow her to react quickly in the event that her child is put on the wrong bus.
Hernandez pointed out, “We need to love and care for everyone. Adriana [Bautista] is scared to send Alondra back. In her mind, how is she going to be able to function at work?” Bautista and Fuentes have little choice but to trust the school to take care of their kids, Bautista lamented, “because we have to make a living; we have to provide for our kids.”
Her frustration with the lack of accessible information extends beyond her work day. “Nobody is able to answer my phone call at school after work hours,” Bautista pointed out. The system needs to recognize the reality of a working parent’s schedule, and offer more safeguards to assure that a child’s safety is being accounted for.
“There needs to be changes to the transportation, website, and rules and protocols. We trust the school and the transportation system,” Bautista implored. “I hope somebody can help me make these changes for all the Alondras and for all the other kids who have experienced this.”
This story has been updated to include comment from Cape Henlopen School District.