A school bus driver who left an autistic 19-year-old man alone in the locked vehicle on a warm summer day pleaded guilty Friday to a felony count stemming from his death, which triggered a new state law aimed at preventing such tragedies.
Armando Abel Ramirez, 37, pleaded guilty to one count of dependent adult abuse resulting in death and admitted an allegation of proximately causing death to the victim, Hun Joon “Paul” Lee, according to Shiara Davila-Morales of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Ramirez — who was ordered to be taken into custody — is facing two years in state prison when sentenced Jan. 30 at the Norwalk courthouse, according to Davila-Morales.
Lee was found on the floor of a parked bus in a Whittier bus yard on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2015. All of the windows on the bus were closed and the temperature that day was near 90 degrees, prosecutors said.
According to Whittier police, Lee rode the bus to a transition program at the Sierra Education Center near Sierra Vista High School about 8:30 that morning and should have boarded it to return home by 4 p.m.
When he didn’t get home on time, his mother called the school district, which contacted the Pupil Transportation Cooperative, leading to his discovery by the driver.
Investigators said Lee had not been able to verbally communicate and needed special care.
Ramirez — a substitute driver for Lee’s bus who was working a split shift — apparently believed Lee had gotten off the bus to go to school that morning. But the driver did not walk to the back of the bus or look over his shoulder to check if anyone was left in the vehicle at the end of his morning shift, according to prosecutors.
He returned the bus to the bus yard, filled out paperwork, left for home and returned for work that afternoon, when he was notified by a dispatcher that Lee was missing.
Ramirez went back to the bus, found Lee unresponsive and called for help. Paramedics performed CPR, but Lee was pronounced dead at the scene.
In a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Pupil Transportation Cooperative, Lee’s parents said their son never got off the bus at school and the driver returned the bus to the depot, “locked it and left” with Lee still inside.
The lawsuit alleges the company employees failed “to do a mandatory and routine sweep of the subject bus prior to exiting, especially considering that there were only three children on the subject bus who were of special needs.”
The bus operator also failed “to document or confirm (Lee’s) arrival at school,” failed to escort him off the bus and “neglected to pay attention to (Lee) for an extended period of time during the bus ride and failed to recognize, respond to or assist (Lee) in any manner,” the lawsuit alleges.
Last September, the young man’s parents thanked Gov. Jerry Brown for signing legislation requiring school buses to be equipped with an alarm system to ensure passengers are not forgotten.
“Although we tragically lost our son Paul last year after he was left behind on a school bus for seven hours, we know that the signing of this bill is a warm hug from heaven that will enable all children who ride a school bus to arrive at their destination safely,” Eun Ha Lee, the young man’s mother, said then.
The bill, authored by Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, requires school buses in California to be outfitted with child-safety alarms. The alarm system generates a noise when the bus is turned off, and the driver must walk to the rear of the bus to turn it off, ensuring that the vehicle is checked to determine if any children are still on board.
The bill also requires bus drivers to receive training in child-safety check procedures every year when they renew their bus driver safety certificate.
“The Paul Lee School Bus Safety Law will protect every child who rides a school bus to and from school every day,” Mendoza said previously. “No parent should fear that their child will not return home safely at the end of the day.”
— City News Service