For Shameka McNeil, April 18 was the worst day of her life. Her 10-year-old son Jonathan was missing.
“As strange as this story sounds, what I’m about to tell you is completely true,” McNeil said to the 911 dispatcher.
The day started like any other Monday. McNeil got her son up like any other normal day. She put him on the bus at 8:30 a.m. and the bus drove off.
Half an hour later, an empty bus came back to her driveway. She said the bus driver came to the door and asked her if Jonathan was ready for school. She said she told the bus driver that she didn’t realize that Jonathan would have a special bus and that he rode the regular bus that day.
According to police, the bus driver picked Jonathan up for school around 8:30 a.m. He was misbehaving on the bus, so the bus driver turned around and dropped him off at an intersection near his house, telling Jonathan he would be back in a half an hour to pick him up.
But Jonathan wasn’t there.
McNeil said it took her a minute to process what was happening, but when she did, she called the principal. The principal confirmed that Jonathan was not at school. She then dialed police.
According to Sgt. George Paugh with the Easton Police Department, the search for Jonathan began around 9:16 a.m. A utility worker found the 10-year-old walking on a rail trail path. He said Jonathan was trying to get to school, so he gave him directions.
At 9:30 a.m. police received word that Jonathan was safe and at school. A woman walking her dog accompanied him to school.
“No, nothing like this situation has happened before,” Sgt. Paugh said. “We’ve had missing kids before, but nothing like this.”
The scenario is frightening enough for any mother, much less the mother of a child with autism.
Jonathan was diagnosed with autism in 2012. He’s attended Easton Elementary since first grade and has always ridden the bus. McNeil said the incident was mind-boggling.
The Easton Police Department press release stated, “due to the child’s condition, the child should not have been allowed off the bus.”
“This situation was about my son, it says that he shouldn’t have been left alone because of his condition, but no child should ever be dropped off like that,” McNeil said. “No parent should have to go through that.”
Autism is not a behavioral issue, but rather a neurological one, Shelly Allred, the director of safety programs at Pathfinders for Autism, said.
“The behaviors are a result of neurological issues,” she said.
Individuals with autism can have difficulty communicating a need, discomfort or pain, Allred said.
Classroom and school bus settings can be particularly stressful for children with autism because they tend to have sensory issues, Allred said. It’s possible that an autistic person could be hearing everything from the buzz of fluorescent lights to chalk on a board and the teacher’s instructions all at the same intensity.
Social settings and interpersonal relationships can also be difficult. Allred said that individuals with autism tend to have a hard time reading nonverbal cues. As a result, they may do things that other kids think are weird.
Police confirmed that the bus driver, Michael J. Prager, 67, was released from his position with Talbot County Schools. Police could not comment on the employment status of the aide, Melodie L. Warner, 60. A statement released by Talbot County Schools said in part, “Student safety is our highest priority. Appropriate personnel issues have been addressed. A review of proper pick-up and drop-off procedures has also been completed and emphasized with all bus drivers.”
Allred said it’s important try to understand what individuals with autism are experiencing and how they process information.
“They’re not in any way bad,” she said. “They shouldn’t ever be judged by bad behaviors because those behaviors might be the only way to communicate something. But they really have these beautiful minds and this great perception. Without them the world would be a whole lot less interesting.”
McNeil now drives Jonathan to school in the mornings. She said he doesn’t want to ride the bus because the bus driver is mean.
“All Jonathan wanted to do was find his way to school,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
April was National Autism Awareness Month, McNeil said she wants to use this incident to spread awareness about autism.
“It’s not just about me and my son,” she said. “So many parents are going through this.”