CLEARWATER — A 5-year-old girl was found crying at the corner of a busy Clearwater intersection after a school bus left her at the wrong school Thursday morning.
The bus drove off without Ja-carria Dodson, who attends Dunedin Elementary School, after she got off the bus for an evacuation drill at Sandy Lane Elementary School.
"I feel awful about it because it's very scary," explained Ja-carria, a kindergartener, a few hours after the incident.
Ja-carria was found by a friend of her mother's who happened to drive by Sunset Point Road and Kings Highway as the girl attempted to walk to her great-grandmother's home nearby, Tate said. The friend then took Ja-carria to Dunedin Elementary School.
"Anything could have happened," said Ja-carria's mom, Jacqueline Tate, 21. "She could have been hit by a car."
School officials are providing few details about how the girl ended up alone on a corner a mile from her school.
"There appears to be some inconsistencies in the information we have received from the parent and school personnel," Pinellas County schools spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said.
But Zahn refused to address what the inconsistencies were.
Tate says all she knows is that her daughter got on a bus to go to school a few blocks from her home and an hour later an old friend drove by her home to say she found Ja-carria alone on a corner more than a mile away.
Zahn said there were five adults, including two assistant principals, supervising the drill at Sandy Lane.
All students got off the bus for the drill, Zahn said. Then, Sandy Lane students were told to get back on the bus, collect their belongings and go to class. And Dunedin Elementary students were told to get back on the bus and stay until they were delivered to school, Zahn said.
"Ja-carria did not get back on the bus after the bus drill at Sandy Lane. Her bus assistant did not take roll this morning," a Pinellas County schools conference report said.
Zahn said that school officials told her that information was provided by Ja-carria's mother, not the school staff.
But Tate said a Dunedin school official told her roll call might not have been taken.
Zahn also would not elaborate on the protocol for making sure that all students who get off buses for a drill are accounted for.
"The bus assistants are assigned to meet the needs of special education students and are not expected to take attendance of all students on a school bus," Zahn said.
She said Dunedin Elementary is reviewing the matter and scheduled a conference with Ja-carria's mother.
"As always, the safety of students is of the upmost importance to our district," Zahn said.
Tate said she did receive a call from the school staff Thursday, saying the school wanted Ja-carria to show how she left Sandy Lane property.
Tate said she learned about the incident when she got a call from her sister about 9:20 a.m. Her sister told her she received a call from Dunedin Elementary that Ja-carria was left at the wrong school, but was safe at Dunedin Elementary.
She learned more about what happened from her friend, who dropped Ja-carria off at Dunedin Elementary and then drove to Tate's home to explain what happened, Tate said.
Tate arrived at Dunedin Elementary around 10 a.m. She said it seemed like the school was trying to shift the blame.
The report from the school states that "Ja-carria does not usually ride the bus in the a.m." But Tate said her daughter had been doing so all week and rides the bus a few times a week in the mornings.
"I am worried it could happen again," Tate said. "They need to take better precautions."
After her friend stopped by, Tate went to the school to talk to officials and bring her daughter home.
"I wanted her to be home with me because I know she was a little shaken up," Tate said.
Dunedin Elementary School principal Kathy Brickley said Zahn told her all calls about the incident should be referred to Zahn.
Zahn said she may have more information today.
"The entire matter is under investigation by the principal of Dunedin Elementary," Zahn said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or 445-4155.