Hawley man denies negligent homicide in bus death of 9-year-old girl

  • Summer Steele The Steele Family

  • Tendzin Parsons, 70, of Hawley, pleads not guilty in Northampton District Court on Friday to a charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide.  —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tendzin Parsons, 70, of Hawley, pleads not guilty in Northampton District Court on Friday to a charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Friday, May 12, 2017

NORTHAMPTON – A 70-year-old Hawley man on Friday denied a charge of negligently operating a school bus that killed a 9-year-old girl in Plainfield last year.   

Tendzin Parsons pleaded not guilty in Northampton District Court to a charge of negligent motor vehicle homicide. Parsons was the driver of the bus on which Summer Steele had been riding after school on Oct. 28, 2016.

Summer was a third-grade student at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield and died as a result of injuries she suffered after becoming caught in the door of the bus while getting off the vehicle at her Plainfield home. She was pronounced dead at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield shortly before 5 p.m. that day.

Four benches full of people, most wearing purple #loveasstrongassteele bracelets, watched as Parsons’ attorney, Stephen Ferrarone of Amherst, entered a not guilty plea on his client's behalf.

Parsons, who is a caretaker at a Buddhist center in Hawley, was released on the conditions that he surrender his passport, not operate a motor vehicle and not leave Massachusetts without the permission of the probation department. 

Following his arraignment, Parsons left the courthouse and got into a car waiting for him. His next court appearance is scheduled for July.

Steele's family gathered in the hallway outside the courtroom and in front of the courthouse doors, exchanging hugs before parting.

Shortly after the accident, Parsons explained to police that he had dropped two children off in front of 43 South Central St. in Plainfield and saw the first child get off the bus and run up her driveway, Massachusetts State Trooper John Riley wrote in a probable cause statement filed in court. 

Parsons then told officers he began thinking about his next drop-off and failed to ensure that the second child was clear of the doors before closing them and driving away, Riley wrote.

“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,” Riley wrote.

In the statement, Riley wrote that an investigation found that Parsons closed the door of the bus before (the child) and her backpack had “adequately and safely” cleared the bus, causing the backpack to become stuck in the door.

Brent Steele, Summer Steele’s father, who was at the scene, told police the door was shut “before (the child’s) feet were even on the ground.”

The office of the chief medical examiner in Holyoke ruled the cause of Summer’s death to be blunt force injury to the torso.

Police said with the bus motor running and the heat and fan on, it was likely those noises would have impeded Parsons’ ability to hear any yelling or screaming.

“In reflecting on the incident, Mr. Parsons indicated that the ‘classic mistake’ he made ‘according to the book … we drive by’ was that he ‘didn’t double check that she … was five feet away from the bus’ before he pulled away from the stop,” Riley wrote in his report. 

Parsons had been transporting elementary-age children from the Mohawk Regional School District and told police he had worked for the bus company, F.M. Kuzmeskus Inc. of Shelburne Falls, since late 2014. He earlier lived in the United Kingdom where he drove a “city bus” for approximately two years, he told police.

The incident was investigated by the Plainfield Police and Massachusetts State Police.​

Summer’s parents told the Gazette four months after her death that they want people to know their daughter as more than a name on a police report.

“She was the light of our lives,” said Summer’s mother, Amanda Steele. “We looked so forward to seeing the person she was going to become — someone special. Because we knew she was going to change the world in some way. Everyone always remembered her.” 

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.