TAMPA —Things could've ended badly: A kindergartener, left alone Friday at the wrong school bus stop, got into a car with a stranger. The man, who had a criminal record, drove for 45 minutes.
As it turned out, Jamal Ashley, 6, had found a good Samaritan in Marcus Burney, 23, who helped the boy find his way home.
But now Jamal's parents, fearful over dangers he could have faced, want answers from the Hillsborough School District.
"I don't want this to happen to anyone else's child," said Jamal's father, Johnny Ashley.
He and his wife, Tocarra Ashley, say they plan to pull both of their children out of Oak Grove Elementary. They say they're unhappy with the way school staff members responded when the parents reported Jamal missing.
"We were scared and worried," the father said. "They didn't really want to talk to us about it."
Hillsborough School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said she is uncertain whether correct protocol was followed.
"It was a series of unfortunate circumstances, but fortunately he got home safely," Cobbe said.
School officials were still trying to sort out Wednesday how Jamal got on the wrong bus. Kindergarteners identify their buses using a color code. Confusion arose Friday concerning which buses the pink and yellow bus riders were supposed to take.
"He was supposed to be on the pink bus. Somehow he ended up on the yellow bus, the one with the substitute driver who didn't know who was supposed to be there," she said.
According to the driver's account, Jamal left with boys who said it was his normal stop.
He usually rides the bus home with his brother, Daijon, 7.
Their mother, nursing student Tocarra Ashley, expected to see both boys step off their normal bus about 2:20 p.m. Friday.
But only Daijon got off.
The mother panicked.
The father, an independent music producer, said he went to the school to get help. The secretary "got loud," and he got loud back, he said.
According to Cobbe, the secretary told Ashley to calm down.
"Calm down?! I want to know what happened," he yelled, according to Cobbe's report.
Meanwhile, Jamal was walking in the rain. He found a Hartline bus stop near Himes and Hillsborough avenues.
He started to shiver.
He started to cry.
That's when Burney entered the picture. Burney, a cook at a chain restaurant, was out picking up his paycheck when he spotted Jamal, clearly in trouble.
Burney had made mistakes in his life. As a teen, he had brushes with police. As a young adult, he had been put on probation for pawning items he didn't own.
But he had recently become a father. And so, before Burney knew it, he had flung his car door open and left the engine running and he was at the boy's side.
People honked at him for blocking traffic.
"Are you okay?" Burney remembers asking.
Jamal shook his head no.
"How old are you?" Burney asked.
"I'm in kindergarten," Jamal said.
Burney did not call the police. He worried the mother might get in trouble.
"I know how the police are," he said.
So he and Jamal went looking for Jamal's mother.
Forty-five minutes later they came to the Newport Square apartments.
Jamal knew he was home.
"We go up and knock on the door," Burney said. "A woman answers and everybody's going, like, berserk."
After the incident, the school system put the bus driver, 51-year-old Belinda Carter, on paid leave, Cobbe said. It's against the rules to let a child Jamal's age off the bus without a waiting adult.
Jamal is now afraid to ride the bus, his father said.
"Everybody's life is completely changed," he said.
Johnny Ashley thanked Burney for his help.
"When you're younger you make a lot of mistakes," Burney said.
"Things like this," he said, "show what type of person I really am."
Amber Mobley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5311. News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.