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Mother says RSU 56 bus staff jeopardized the safety of special needs daughter

Frances MacLeod says pictures and videos show a school bus driver attempting to drive away before her daughter with special needs was safely secured in her seat.

DIXFIELD, Maine — A mother from Dixfield plans to take legal action after she claims a school bus driver attempted to drive away with her special needs daughter before she was safely secured in her seat.

Natalie MacLeod has autism, ADHD, and severe behavioral issues. The incident allegedly took place on Feb. 21, but her mother, Frances MacLeod, says this is not the first-time bus staff has jeopardized her daughter's safety. 

RSU 56 officials say they are working to ensure that Natalie has a safe passage to and from school, but Natalie's mom says it's too little too late.

Like most kids, 12-year-old Natalie loves playing on her swing set. She also likes to help her mother make lists for the grocery store.

Natalie has gone through a lot in her young life. She has special needs and survived a non-cancerous tumor as a young child, which her mom says caused developmental and behavioral challenges. Natalie has self-injurious behaviors, including head-banging. She is transported by a special needs bus from RSU 56 to the Margaret Murphy Centers for children in Auburn. To keep her safe during the one-hour bus ride, she must be buckled into a 5-point harness. 

"So there is no movement and the ability to rock her head and cause concussions, which she has had in the past," MacLeod explained.

Natalie has an Individual Education Plan, or an IEP, a legally binding document that outlines a focused educational plan. 

It includes guidelines bus staff must follow to ensure Natalie is safely transported to and from school.  Frances says that didn't happen the morning of Feb. 21. 

After Natalie got on the bus and the door closed, she flopped down and wouldn't move from the stairwell. 

"Natalie was upset. She transitioned onto the bus, but she never made it up the stairs," MacLeod said.

MacLeod expected an aide to come and help her daughter to her assigned seat, but when that didn't happen, she took a picture of her daughter sobbing, sitting in the stairwell. 

"The driver takes it out of the park, hits the gas, and starts to drive away with her," MacLeod said.

Frances says home security videos show Natalie kicking and punching the bus door, causing it to open slightly. The bus stopped after going forward a little bit, and Natalie finally got in her seat on the bus. Frances immediately notified Kenny Robbins, the school district's director of building, grounds, and transportation, who disputed what happened.  RSU 56 Superintendent Pam Doyen, did not respond to a request for an interview, but in a statement told NEWS CENTER Maine:

"I met with my transportation director last week and made the directive to install a camera on the bus. He contacted the company that installs bus cameras, and we are hopeful it will be completed next week," Doyen said.  

"Additionally, the special education director has met with Frances and the full IEP team. And [they] will be meeting with them again this week to address safety concerns. I have been, and continue to be, willing to work with Frances to ensure Natalie's safety as well as to alleviate Frances' concerns," Doyen said. 

But MacLeod says at that same meeting, her request for a security camera and additional training for staff was denied. She added this is the third time bus staff have not followed safety guidelines when transporting her daughter. Every time she reported the incidents, she was assured that it would be the last time. 

"How are they going to show that it is not going to happen again? Because it shouldn't have happened to begin with," MacLeod added. 

Natalie's mother gave the videos and a picture of Natalie taken during the incident to the Oxford County Sherriff's Department. NEWS CENTER Maine plans to follow up if a criminal probe is launched. She plans to address board members at the RSU 56 school board meeting, which is scheduled for March 21 at 6:30 p.m.

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