SOMERS, N.Y. - A group of Somers youngsters are being praised for their behavior during a ride home from school that spurred DWI charges against the bus driver.
A group of the children and their parents met at Spins Hudson, an entertainment venue in Peekskill, on Sunday, Jan. 5.
After solemnly receiving certificates acknowledging their bravery, the kids went back to doing what kids do best…playing.
Supervisor Rick Morrissey was scheduled to hand out the certificates himself, but couldn’t because he was busy handling the aftermath of yet another storm-related power outage in town.
However, he texted a statement that was read to the kids.
“It’s unfortunate that you were all exposed to this harrowing experience. We consider all of you the most precious part of our community. What happened to you a few weeks ago should never have happened. However, in your own way, each acted bravely. Your actions…coming together, keeping calm, calling your parents…all contributed to a positive outcome. You showed perseverance under difficult circumstances. The town is a better place for your behaviors.”
The 61-year-old driver, William J. Mendez of Somers, has been charged with aggravated DWI and DWI in connection with the Dec. 9 incident.
The former charge, a Class E felony, was brought under Leandra’s Law, or the Child Passenger Protection Act. It imposes special sanctions on anyone convicted of endangering the life of a passenger under age 16.
Morrissey invited the kids for a guided tour of the Elephant Hotel and Circus Museum on Thursday, Jan. 9, after school. It will be conducted by town historian Doris Jane Smith.
The certificates read: “In recognition of the great courage you showed on Dec. 9, 2019. Your family, friends and community are proud of you and your brave actions.”
Said one of the parents, Marialisa “ML” Zywotchenko: “All of the children on the bus were quite scared, but acted very bravely.”
Afraid that the driver was acting strangely, they used their cell phones to call or text their parents, who alerted the school district and police. The children also made sure everyone’s seat belt was buckled. Two boys even switched seats with younger children in the emergency row anticipating that they would have the strength needed to open the windows if the bus flipped, Zywotchenko said.
Parent Vin Barron said Sunday that the certificates and afternoon at the arcade were intended to “let the kids know that they did the right thing…and that things are going to be OK.”
His 8-year-old daughter, Ella, still talks about what happened but is doing well.
“She’s a tough cookie,” Barron said.
Yamily Gibson had three children on the bus, a set of 9-year-old twins and a 10-year-old.
Being able to blow off some steam among familiar faces is a good way to relieve anxiety, Gibson said.
“We were happy to know that they (the children) could still think critically while under pressure. They were very brave,” she said.
Some of the children are still shaken up, while others seem to be getting back to normal, said parent Monica DeVito.
It’s the parents who are having a harder time processing the angst.
Gibson’s daughter came home that day, hugged her and told her she hadn’t expected to “see her again.”
“It was heartbreaking,” Gibson said.
Parent Nancy Meza said one of the children became upset when the New York City subway train he was on had to make an unscheduled stop.
“He turned to me and asked: ‘Is there something wrong with the driver?’ ” Meza recalled, tearing up.
Kara DeVito, one of the kids on Bus P, said she was amazed by the actions of her fellow students.
They were so calm about it that she didn’t even realized what was happening at first.
“It blew my mind,” said the 10-year-old.
Kara, grateful that nobody got hurt during the incident, took a break to tell a reporter that she felt “pretty OK” about getting back on the bus now that winter break is over.
“I’m not a drama queen. I don’t panic a lot, but it was a traumatic experience. We were all very lucky,” she said.
Of the 32 children on the bus, 11 came to play at the arcade on Sunday, a treat acknowledging their bravery.
They were Ella Barron, Joseph Coker-Walton, Kara DeVito, Christopher Frey, Emily Frey, Nicholas Frey, Aesun Gibson, Braeden Gibson, Cian Gibson, Isabella Vzoh and Hudson Meza.
The Somers Board of Education is forming a Transportation Safety Task Force. It will be made up of about a dozen community volunteers and is scheduled to convene Thursday, Jan. 9.
The district’s lawyers are investigating and will give the board a written summary once it’s complete.
According to State Police, Mendez had had a blood alcohol level of .22 percent, three times the legal limit, when he was taking 32 Somers Intermediate School students home on Dec. 9. He was arrested on Dec. 18.
He appeared in Somers Town Court on Monday, Jan. 6, and is due back in March.
The Somers School District has placed its transportation director, Joe Bernardi, on administrative leave.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch made the announcement Monday, Dec. 23, in a letter to parents. Bernardi is also the district’s chief emergency officer.
According to one parent, Blanch rode the bus with the kids on the first day of school after the winter break.
The district is delving into the Dec. 9 incident aboard Bus P, including “how it was managed, communicated, and where we could have done better.”
It was meeting with safety and security consultants, Altaris, on Tuesday, Jan. 7, at the Somers Middle School on transportation policies and process.