(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)
Head Start officials reprimanded a second aide Wednesday as part of the agency's ongoing investigation into how a 3-year-old student was left alone five hours on a school bus two weeks ago.
Donna Oja, the aide responsible for making sure each child got off the bus, had a written reprimand placed in her personnel file and was suspended one day without pay for her failure to notice that Ashley Garrett remained asleep on the bus.
The bus went to the school district transportation center, where Ashley remained unnoticed until a bus driver came to clean the vehicle for an afternoon run. Ashley was not injured, but her mother, Christy Beckham, said the girl was traumatized by the incident.
"The reason (Oja) was not terminated was the circumstances regarding how the children were released off the bus," explained Jennene Norman, whom Head Start has contracted to conduct its personnel matters.
Specifically, bus aide Mary McKnight allowed children to leave the bus in front of and behind her, rather than passing down each child and calling out each name to the aide receiving them, Norman said. Especially because Oja was not the usual person to greet the bus, Norman said, McKnight should have been more diligent in following procedure.
Mid-Florida Community Services, which operates the preschool program, fired McKnight over the incident. McKnight appealed that action, contending that she followed all the bus guidelines. She suggested that Oja and bus driver Roxanne Emerson, a school district employee who has resigned, were more responsible than she for leaving Ashley on the bus.
On Wednesday, the agency reaffirmed its decision letting McKnight go.
"I've reviewed what her appeal said. The agency overall has reviewed it. There is no new information that wasn't previously reviewed and discussed at the time of her dismissal and her termination will stand," Norman said.
McKnight said she did not want to comment, but added she intended to fight the action in other venues. She would not specify.
The information from Head Start's investigation will influence the outcome of an inquiry into whether any crime was committed, said Bill Catto, head of the State Attorney's Office in Hernando County.
Catto expected to announce whether charges will be filed before the weekend. But he did not want to decide the fate of any individual without having the full set of details before him. Head Start did not get its report to Catto before noon Wednesday, preventing him from acting that day.
"I'm going to try to do everybody that's involved at the same time," Catto said. "Obviously, what (Head Start) did with the one lady (Oja) is an interesting piece of information. I'll be taking that into account in how we deal with her."
Hernando County sheriff's deputies investigated the situation as a felony child neglect case at Beckham's request.
Beckham argued that if she had left her daughter in a car for five hours, she would have been arrested and charged. The people who overlooked Ashley, allowing her to remain asleep on the bus, should meet the same fate, she said.
Deputies turned the case over to the State Attorney's Office about a week ago. Beckham could not be reached for comment. Norman said Ashley has not returned to Head Start since the bus incident.
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.