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The Myth of Safe Places

tinybusI hate these stories. I hate that they happen at all. I hate how often they happen most of all.

A 19-year-old special needs student was found dead on Friday, slumped in the aisle of a parked school bus at Whittier’s Sierra Education Center, and police are investigating whether he was inadvertently forgotten and left there all day long.

On Saturday, authorities identified the young man as Hun-Joon Lee, a special needs student who attended the center and regularly rode the bus home. On a typical day, the teen would leave the center at 2:30 p.m. and arrive home at 4, yet when he failed to show up on Friday, his mother called the school, who in turn contacted the bus company. A driver checked the bus, and found Lee unresponsive around 4:20.

According to NBC Los Angeles, Lee had a severe form of autism and was unable to speak. His family members believe he may have been waiting for instructions. Waiting all day.

This dreadful story is one that deserves a great deal of outrage, representing as it does a breathtaking chain of failures. Of course, I feel that outrage. I’m not sure I understand what’s going on in the heart of anyone who doesn’t feel it, to be honest. But I don’t have the energy to talk so much about the outrage. As parents of kids with disabilities, if there’s one thing we’ve got experience with, it’s in expressing our outrage at the careless and casual way our people are often treated by the world. But we’re also all-too-familiar with how ineffective that outrage usually proves to be.

It is a story that’s worthy of attention, though. It’s hard to write about it. I find myself as gutted as I was on Saturday morning when I was first made aware of it. I was at Schuyler’s Miracle League soccer game when I first read it, shared by a friend and special needs parent who was also deeply shaken. I sat in the stands, watching Schuyler and her friends playing hard and free in what should be one of the very few truly safe spaces in their world, and I read about the calamitous final day in the life of Hun-Joon Lee.

This story dispels that myth, the one that we so desperately want to believe in. It’s the gentle lie of the safe space.

So many elements of this story reach into our secret hearts, and stir up a nest of anxieties that we sometimes don’t even feel comfortable discussing out loud. It doesn’t even touch on the things we usually worry about, like societal rejection or persistent unemployment or sexual predators. This story begins and ends in a setting that we allow ourselves to trust as a safe place.

We spend years putting our kids on buses; Schuyler has been a school bus rider since kindergarten. She’s a sophomore in high school now, and yet I’ve never stopped waving to her departing bus, and I’ve never turned away before it has left my sight. We tell ourselves that it’ll be fine. It’s not a regular school bus like the rolling Lord of the Flies island that we remember from our own youth, after all. Our kids get on the much maligned but generally newer and better equipped short bus, with drivers (at least in some districts) who have extra training in dealing with kids with disabilities. Schuyler’s bus has always been staffed with at least one aide as well, helping the kids put on their seat belts (did I mention the special needs bus is fully equipped with restraints and safety features?) and getting them off the bus when it gets to its final destination.

But photos accompanying the story of Hun-Joon Lee show a short bus, no more than six or seven windows long, seating maybe 18 passengers. If the ongoing investigation ultimately finds that he was left on the bus all day, it’ll mean that the trained, professional driver in whose life Lee’s life was placed managed to overlook the presence of a full-grown adult as he stepped off his bus, presumedly locked the door behind him and went about his day. Lee’s bus was not a safe place.

We don’t know the particulars of Hun-Joon Lee’s life, but it’s reasonable to assume that the transitional program he was attending was intended to prepare him for at least some measure of independent, autonomous life. He’ll never have that chance now. And he didn’t lose that opportunity because of his disability. It was taken from him. You can blame the driver, and you can blame the transitional program he was supposed to be attending instead of sitting in a hot bus, suffering to a degree that you and I cannot begin to imagine until his life was extinguished. You can look for the mistakes that were made and you can identify the casual, careless way in which young people like ours are often regarded even by those who are supposed to know much better and DO much better.

In the end, Hun-Joon Lee was devoured by an unsafe world. He was destroyed not by his disability, but by the monsters that we as a society have created, or at least allowed to roam free. He sat, unmissed, in a school bus on a hot day, and he paid the price for our complacence. Despite the sorrow of his family and the agonized guilt of those who failed him, and also despite the paragraphs I’m spilling out here in a failed attempt to wrap my brain around this, in the end, there’s really not a goddamn thing to say.

Just sadness for Hun-Joon Lee. And fear, a low-burning, omnipresent growling fear, as we send our own beloved kids out into a world that is most certain not a safe place.

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