중앙데일리

Girl left dying in overheated bus follows a pattern

Lawmakers have tried, and failed, to improve child safety laws

July 19,2018
Police on Wednesday requested an autopsy for a 4-year-old girl who was found dead in an overheated day care center bus in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi, on Tuesday in a repeat of a similar incident from two years ago.

Authorities suspect the girl was left behind on the bus at 9:40 a.m. on Tuesday and remained there for over seven hours. The bus was parked outside the center, and the temperature in Dongducheon that day reached a high of 32.2 degrees Celsius (89.9 degrees Fahrenheit). At 4:56 p.m., the center’s staff found the girl dead, according to law enforcement authorities.

“When she was found, the girl’s body was already stiff, meaning she had been dead for a few hours,” a firefighter from the Dongducheon Fire Department said. “Her face showed signs of cyanosis, meaning she couldn’t breathe well.”

Police tentatively concluded the girl died of heat stroke and said they would confirm it when autopsy results are out as early as this week.

Officers questioned a 24-year-old teacher who was in charge of getting the children on and off the bus on Tuesday and the 62-year-old driver of the bus. They found that the day care center had called a parent of the girl at around 4 p.m. and said she did not attend day care that day.

The parent replied, according to police, that the girl boarded the bus in the morning, at which point the center’s staff searched the bus and found her dead.

“We thought all the children had gotten off the bus,” an employee of the center told police. “We didn’t know she was left behind.”

According to police, eight other children boarded the bus that morning. Korea’s Road Traffic Law delegates the responsibility of checking whether all children have gotten off to drivers of school buses.

“They could have prevented the accident had the driver or anyone at the center checked the bus,” a police officer said. “The center also did not contact the parent of the girl immediately upon finding that she did not attend the center that day.”

Authorities said they would decide on what measures to take against the teacher and driver after autopsy results are released.

Tuesday’s incident called back to a similar case two years ago, when a 4-year-old boy was left for eight hours in a kindergarten bus in Gwangju in July 2016. He was found unconscious and remains in a vegetative state.

“Had the day care center people treated each child like their own, something like this would not have happened,” the mother of the boy, Mrs. Lee, said on Wednesday. “It is painful for a grown-up to stay in a car without air conditioning on a summer day for just five minutes. Imagine how excruciating it might be for children.”

Lee’s second son, a 4-year-old, currently attends a day care center, but she doesn’t let him take the bus. Instead, they walk the 20 minutes to the center every day. The mother said her husband has since quit his job to take care of their first son at the hospital.

“I think there needs to be a regulation that mandates day care centers and kindergartens install live cameras on the bus and at centers and kindergartens,” Lee said. “This way, parents can check on their children and ensure that they are not getting left behind on a bus or physically abused by teachers.”

In the Gwangju case, the teacher in charge and the driver were sentenced to prison for dereliction of duty, with the teacher receiving a suspended sentence. The Gwangju Education Office also ordered that the kindergarten shut down its operations. The school then filed a suit against the office. After a lower court ruled in favor of the government, the kindergarten appealed.

On July 8 this year, the Gwangju High Court ruled that the kindergarten could remain open to “minimizing the economic and mental cost” for parents of children currently attending the kindergarten, who will have to find other options if it closes. The parents had submitted a statement to the court requesting the kindergarten stay open.

Soon after the incident in July 2016, the Ministry of Education said it would mandate child safety training for day care center and kindergarten teachers, but it was never put in place. Current regulations mandate only the driver and an operator ot the bus receive such training.

Rep. Yoo Dong-soo of the ruling Democratic Party introduced a bill last July that would require school buses to install alarm systems for children left behind, but it did not reach the floor because of disagreement over whether it was ethical to leave the responsibility of checking the safety of children to an alarm system rather than drivers and teachers.

“We can come up with other measures, such as training children on how to behave when they are left behind on a bus,” said Choi Nan-joo, a manager at the Korea Consumer Agency. “For example, we can teach them to move to the driver’s seat and honk the horn. But what is most important here is that drivers and teachers check the bus carefully before getting off.”

BY JEON ICK-JIN, CHOI MO-RAN, KIM HO [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]


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