Parents of student with autism found dead on California school bus speak out

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
The parents of Paul Lee set up a small memorial for him at his home on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.
The parents of Paul Lee set up a small memorial for him at his home on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

WHITTIER, Calif. -- The parents of a 19-year-old man with special needs said they trusted the Whittier Unified School District and its school bus operators to get their son home safely.

Paul Lee, who had autism, was found dead in the aisleway of a school bus in a Whittier School District parking lot Friday afternoon. The substitute bus driver apparently forgot Paul was onboard.

The Lee family questions how Paul could have been overlooked. They said there were only three other students who rode their son's bus and he was the last one to board.

The trip to the school from his home lasts about six minutes and Paul was not a small person. He was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed almost 300 pounds.

The Lees said he may have been the size of a man, but he had the mind of a toddler. His mother, Younha Lee, bathed him, brushed his teeth and combed his hair daily. Paul could not speak and so he had no capacity to yell, let alone knock on the window of the bus he was trapped on.

"He cannot speak out even one word. He cannot ask help," his mother said.

Eyewitness News spoke to other bus companies and each representative said their company has protocols. The driver must walk to the back of the bus to make sure all students are off.

School district officials said everything is under review. The chartered bus company, Pupil Transportation Cooperative, issued the following statement:

"All of us at the Pupil Transportation Cooperative (PTC) were stunned and saddened to learn of the death of a student on one of our buses last Friday. We are grieving along with his family and friends and offer our sincere and heartfelt condolences for their loss. The PTC is working closely with local authorities as they further investigate the circumstances that led up to this tragic incident. As part of this process, the Board of Directors and staff of the PTC are carefully examining our protocols and practices to ensure that adequate safeguards and precautions are in place. We are committed to safety as a high priority and want our families to feel confident that their children will continue to be safe any time they ride in our buses during."

The Lees said they do not expect school staff to love Paul they way they do, but they hope care providers will be more vigilant.

"Please just pay attention. Just a little," Younha said.

His family has set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for his funeral expenses.