Deaf student left miles from home
Pinellas school officials are investigating an incident Tuesday that left a 13-year-old deaf girl at the wrong bus stop, in the rain, more than two miles from her home.
The girl, Heather Catalano (left), told her parents that the driver of the bus, who was filling in for her regular driver, let her off at Alderman Road near U.S. 19 — the wrong location. Because of her disability, Heather is supposed to be dropped in front of her home near Alderman Road and Alt. U.S. 19.
She tried to use sign language and other hand gestures, said her father, Joe Catalano. But the driver seemed frustrated and hurried her off the bus. Asked whether Heather tried to communicate with the driver through a written message, Joe Catalano said, "It never got to that point."
He added: "My daughter panicked and didn't know what to do."
She arrived home an hour and 15 minutes late, soaking and distraught and with two frantic parents, her father said.
The district's Office of Professional Standards is investigating whether the driver, who has been with the school system for about 13 months, followed proper procedures, said district spokesman Andrea Zahn. He has been assigned to non-driving duties at a bus compound pending the outcome of the inquiry.
Heather's regular driver called in sick that day. An assistant who usually staffs the bus, and likely would have intervened in the situation, had a personal emergency and could not be replaced, Zahn said.
The driver who filled in was a regular driver trying to complete his own route as well as the added route.
"There's no excuse," said Joe Catalano, who expressed outrage in an interview Thursday. "Shame on them."
His daughter, who attends Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, usually gets home around 6:05 p.m. At 6:40 p.m., Catalano said, "I knew something was wrong."
He tried to track down his daughter through a district dispatcher, but 30 minutes passed with no success. He said he grew more frantic, knowing she could not hear traffic.
On the long walk home, he said, his daughter encountered a stranger who appeared to be homeless and tried to talk to her. Unaccustomed to the route, he said, she found her way home using familiar landmarks.
- Thomas C. Tobin, Pinellas education reporter