Early in the afternoon Sept. 4, 4-year-old Baraa Farag was on his way home from his first day of pre-kindergarten at Bel Pre Elementary School in Silver Spring.
Like about 90,000 other public school students in Montgomery County, he rode the bus. When he got off at the bus stop, however, his parents were not there.
Baraa's father, Ahmed Fouda, said that was because the school changed his bus and the place where he would be dropped off without telling him or Baraa's mother. School district officials said his parents were told where to pick him up, but they were not there.
Either way, Baraa was not dropped off when and where his parents expected him to be.
"He kept crying and screaming, because he found himself in the middle of the street without his mom or dad or anyone he knew," Fouda said.
When Baraa did not show up at the expected bus stop at 3:05 p.m., his parents said they called the school, but were told his bus would not arrive until 3:30 p.m. or later. Just before 4:30 p.m., Baraa’s parents called police, trying to find out where he was.
A county police spokeswoman said officers went to Baraa’s home and cleared the call without making a report by 5 p.m., which might mean the child had been found by the time they got to the house. Fouda said his son was missing for about two hours.
Todd Watkins, director of transportation for the county school system, said he thinks the confusion came from the fact that children in half-day, pre-kindergarten generally are picked up and dropped off at different stops.
"It's my understanding that the parent went back to the stop where the child got on the bus," he said. "There is no stop there in the afternoon."
In the middle of the day, when buses only have to pick up pre-kindergarten students, they make more stops closer to their houses. In the afternoon, however, the young children ride buses with kindergarten through fifth-graders and get off at more centrally located stops.
"[Baraa] got off with more than 20 other kids at that stop," Watkins said. "At those large stops in the afternoon, there is not a one-to-one matching up and accounting of each kid with a parent."
Some of the children's parents meet them, he said, but some walk home with older siblings or with different parents on different days. Fouda said even with a large group, his son never should have been left at the bus stop without an adult, and he worries that he could have been hit by a car or kidnapped.
Watkins said that occasionally, especially on the first day of school, children end up on the wrong bus or parents are delayed getting to the bus stop.
"It's almost always caught by a driver figuring out before the child ends up at a bus stop without a parent," he said. If no one realizes the child's parents are not waiting, another parent almost aways helps him or her get home safely.
Dana Tofig, a spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, said such problems are extremely rare, but when they do happen, they show the district that it needs to improve communication with parents.
"If a mistake was made or if the parent was not where the child was, we want to make sure the communication is improved," he said.
In Baraa's case, Watkins said he has been told that a fifth-grader in the district's safety patrol program noticed that Baraa did not have a place to go and tried to help him.
"The patrol stayed with the child until a neighbor noticed that these kids were trying to figure out an issue here ... [and] the neighbor helped reunite the pre-kindergarten child with his parents," he said.
Like most young children in the school system, Baraa had a nametag with his phone number, which helped the woman find his parents.
Fouda is grateful to the woman, and says not everyone would stop to help. Both he and his son were shaken by the incident. Fouda said Baraa is afraid to go back to school, and has not been back since.
Now, he thinks the school district should change its policies so that other children will not be lost like his son was.
"I don't know how many fortunate parents like me would find their kids after it happened," Fouda said.