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NORWOOD

Mother charges school bus driver with bias

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2011

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NORWOOD - School and transportation officials are investigating a Norwood mother’s complaint that a school bus driver has not only refused to pick up and drop off her biracial daughter at their home for the past year, but that she told the girl last week to vacate the seat she had claimed and sit in the back of the bus.

Maria Hartgrove of Lincoln Street said she complained to school administrators on Oct. 5 that the 10-year-old student at the Oldham Elementary School is forced to run to other children’s homes on the street every morning if she wants to get on the bus. The driver stops at everyone else’s driveway, Hartgrove said, and in some cases even waits in front of a house if that child is late.

But not at her house, said the mother, who says she believes the motivation is racially oriented because her daughter is the only nonwhite child in the neighborhood.

An official for the Michael J. Connolly & Sons bus company, which has a transportation contract with Norwood, said he confronted the driver about Hartgrove’s allegation of racial bias and that the driver, who is white, denied it. “We are unaware of anything like that,’’ Jim Connolly said.

Hartgrove said her daughter has dealt with the situation by waiting at a living-room window until she spies the bus coming and then racing to a neighbor’s driveway. The girl has asthma, she said.

In the afternoon, Hartgrove said, her daughter is dropped off at the corner of Lincoln Street, rather than at her own home like all the other children whose addresses are part of the regular Bus 3 route.

Hartgrove said she probably had mentioned her daughter’s asthma condition to a school nurse, but never really anyone else, so it’s not clear whether the bus driver knew about it.

Officials in the school district and the bus company said bad behavior by drivers is never tolerated. They said the driver on the Bus 3 route is a veteran who, when questioned about asking the child to move, explained that the child sat in a seat reserved for the extended day program.

The girl told her mother, however, that the driver does not enforce that policy, and anyone is able to sit in those seats.

Hartgrove said that last Wednesday, as she and her daughter were coming out of the family’s front door to meet the bus at the street, the driver slowed momentarily, then kept going.

“I’m not a troublemaker, but when she took off on my daughter this week she brought me to the boiling point,’’ Hartgrove said. “I want something done. She has to take responsibility for what she has been doing.’’

The next day, her daughter begged to be allowed to stay home, fearful of recriminations, but was sent to school. Later, the mother said, she learned that her daughter took the seat in the front row to avoid having to breathe in diesel fumes and was ordered to move to the back, something Hartgrove called “a real Mississippi moment.’’

“Maybe the driver just doesn’t like how my family looks,’’ she said, explaining that the children are African-American and Italian. “But now my daughter feels like there is something wrong with her. I want her to be proud of who she is, and she has a right to feel safe on the bus.’’

Norwood School Superintendent James Hayden said the district was unaware of the situation but pledged to correct any wrongs. He said the driver has been instructed to stop at the Hartgroves’ home and the girl’s principal will monitor the situation.

“We don’t want anyone feeling the way they do, and neither does the bus company,’’ Hayden said. “It’s about everyone communicating with everyone else and hopefully they’ll all be friends for the rest of the year.’’

Connolly said he shares Hayden’s sentiment and will follow whatever instructions he receives from the school district. He also said the driver will remain on her route unless some evidence surfaces to show she shouldn’t.

Hartgrove said her family has lived in Norwood for just a few years and is discouraged at the treatment they have received. She said she pays $500 a year in bus fees for her daughter and older son to ride to school; the boy, who is in middle school, takes a different bus and has not experienced any problems.

The family has made the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination aware of the situation and plans to file a formal complaint promptly, Hartgrove said.

“All children should be treated the same,’’ she said. “It makes me sad. But if my daughter can make this stop by being brave enough to talk about it, then we can turn it around and make it a positive.’’

The girl said in an interview that her asthma makes it hard to breathe if she has to sit in the back of the bus. But when she sat up front last week, she said, the driver insulted her in front of the other children. Running for the bus every day instead of being able to board it at her home is embarrassing, too, she said: “It doesn’t feel good.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.