Editorial: Lasting lesson in school bus death 

  • Summer Steele

Friday, January 12, 2018

The criminal case against school bus driver Tendzin Parsons was resolved last week when he began serving a year in jail, but 9-year-old Summer Steele’s tragic death and its important lesson must never be forgotten.

School bus drivers must ever be vigilant when dropping off children to ensure they have safely cleared the vehicle. Parsons’ failure to do that on Oct. 28, 2016, resulted in Summer’s death. He pleaded guilty in Northampton District Court on Jan. 5 to negligent motor vehicle homicide.

We urge the Legislature to approve a bill filed by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, that would require school buses to be equipped with a sensor to make sure that children have fully cleared the door before it closes.

The details of the accident are horrific. Parsons, 71, who was driving a bus for F.M. Kuzmeskus Inc. of Shelburne Falls, was dropping Summer and her sister off at their home on South Central Street in Plainfield, where their parents awaited them after school.

Parsons told police that he saw the first child run up her driveway, but began thinking about his next drop-off before making sure that Summer was clear of the door. Her backpack became caught as Parsons closed the door and began to drive away. Summer’s father, Brent Steele, told police the door was shut “before (her) feet were even on the ground.” She was dragged and then struck by the bus.

Massachusetts State Police Trooper John Riley wrote in his report, “In operating the bus in this manner, Mr. Parsons failed to exercise a reasonable level of care and attention contrary not only to what a reasonably attentive and careful driver would do, but also contrary to the specific and thorough training he had received in order to obtain and maintain his bus driver’s license.

“In reflecting on the incident, Mr. Parsons indicated that the ‘classic mistake’ he made ... was that he ‘didn’t double check that she … was five feet away from the bus’ before he pulled away from the stop.”

Parsons was in court Sept. 8 after his lawyer and the Northwestern district attorney’s office struck a deal that would have spared him jail time in return for a guilty plea and four years of probation. However, Judge W. Michael Goggins refused to accept that plea deal after hearing from Summer’s parents that day and reading more than 20 “thoughtful, beautiful and devastating” written statements from people grieving Summer’s loss.

Summer’s mother, Amanda, described her as the girl of their dreams who loved skipping rocks and was a “professional butterfly catcher.” Her mother said, “Summer was meant to live and not to be taken away by someone so careless as this man. This could have been avoided. All he had to do was pay attention to his job.”

Summer’s father, Brent, added, “Life changed in a second. It’s been hell since the day this happened. There are no words to describe the amount of frustration, pain and confusion. How can something like this happen?”

Goggins said in September that he was prepared to sentence Parsons to a year in jail. “This is not a crime of intent,” Goggins said. “It’s a crime of negligence, but it’s a crime based on an act of colossal negligence for which the ultimate price was paid by a beautiful young child.”

Parsons withdrew his guilty plea that day, but changed his mind last week and accepted the year in jail. We agree with Goggins’ reasoning: “It’s proportionate to the gravity of the offense and the culpability of the defendant, and the sentence accounts for the defendant’s age, lack of prior criminal history, his willingness to accept responsibility and accept the punishment, thereby allowing Summer’s family to avoid the inevitable pain, and uncertainty and emotional roller coaster associated with a trial.”

Speaking for the Steele family after Parsons was sentenced, attorney Eric Lucentini said though they accept the outcome, “nothing will ever replace Summer.” He added that “the Steeles will be working toward bus safety for all children in the months and years to come … so that nothing like this ever happens to another child.”

No other parent should have to endure the senseless death of a child in such an everyday moment — climbing off the bus after a day at school.

While state lawmakers can’t legislate care on the part of bus drivers, they can require buses to be equipped with sensors that could prevent tragedies in the future.