GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — A Grand Rapids first-grader walked alone for several hours before a couple asked him if he needed help, after he was dropped off at a different bus stop. His parents say they were unaware of the change that the school district says was sent in a letter earlier that month.
For the past few years, 7-year-old Deng Mach's mother has always picked him up at the same bus stop near their home in southeast Grand Rapids.
Over the last 10 months, Grand Rapids Public Schools students have been learning remotely, until two weeks ago when students made the return to in person. Last Thursday was Mach's first time on the bus this school year. His mother and younger siblings were waiting for him at the usual bus stop, when he didn't arrive.
Typically, any bus delays are communicated by phone, so Mach's parents began to worry.
"I called Dean Transportation, and I asked them, 'What is the drop off location of my son? My son is not home,'" said Adier Deng, Mach's father.
Deng was told his son had been dropped off at Campus Elementary about 40 minutes earlier, which is nearly a mile from where his son is usually dropped off.
He said he left work immediately and called Grand Rapids Police to report that his child was missing. Mach was not located over the next hour as Deng, GRPD and GRPS Public Safety searched the surrounding areas.
Deng said his mind was racing.
"Where could he be? Has he met wrong, unsafe people...Or is he freezing already in the cold?" he said. "So, those were the kind of questions that came to my mind, and those were horrible questions."
Mach had walked several miles, including over a highway overpass, by the time a couple saw him and asked if he needed help.
Isaac Simmons and his fiancé Jameila Green saw Mach crossing the road near Hall Street SW and Grandville Avenue SW. Simmons said he noticed the boy looked tired as he walked across the intersection and asked if he needed help but Mach just waved.
"I was like, 'I think he's lost,' and so, when the green light comes I turn left instead of going straight home," Simmons said.
The couple and their friend were on the way home from the gym when they turned around to try and talk with Mach. Green, who is in social work, tried to establish comfort the second time they spoke to him.
"We just talked to him a little bit to make him feel comfortable to let him know like we weren't here to hurt him, but we wanted to help him, and ended up taking him home," she said.
Mach knew his address, so the couple was able to easily drive him home.
When they arrived at the house, Mach's parents were in tears and police were outside. The search had regrouped at the family's home. Simmons and Green said they hadn't realized until they arrived just how long the boy had been missing.
Deng said he was thankful Simmons and Green stopped. It had been about two hours by the time Mach was dropped off at home.
Mach was taken to the hospital for a check up after. His dad said the boy's lips were swollen from the cold.
Deng said his son is traumatized from the experience, especially because his son says he tried to tell the bus driver it wasn't the correct stop.
GRPS says all protocols were followed by the school and Dean Transportation, and that it has since switched back to the old bus stop to accommodate the family. In a letter dated Jan. 7, the transportation company contracted by GRPS indicated that the drop off location was now Campus Elementary, but the family says they never received that letter.
The district said it is also going to be utilizing two different apps to help parents track their child's bus.
But, Deng said he wants accountability and to know why his son was left.
"I'm going to hold these people accountable, so that this doesn't happen again in the future, to other families, to other kids," he said Monday.
"My son would have died, and that's the thing that was going on in our minds, you know," Deng said. "How can we ever comprehend something like that? When he was just going to school to learn."
GRPS issued this statement:
“First and foremost, we extend our thanks and appreciation to the GRPD and our public safety officers who safely reunited the missing student with their family.
Based on our investigation, all protocols were followed by the school and Dean Transportation and the student was, in fact, dropped off at the correct stop. The pickup and drop off locations were clearly spelled out and communicated with the family on January 7, 2021.
Dean Transportation and the district are working closely with the parents to ensure they are clear on the pick-up and drop off times and expectations. We have also adjusted the drop off location to better meet the needs of this family.
Lastly, we are also helping parents download the ZPass application that allows for parents to track specific times students get on and off the bus. In the near future, a bus tracking application called Here Comes the Bus will also be available for parents to track where the bus is on route to the bus stop.”
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