ABU DHABI // The family of a young boy who died after being locked in a school bus last year said the death of four-year-old Aiman Zeeshanuddin in similar circumstances on Thursday could and should have been avoided. "I am appalled; I really don't have any words," said Shabin Sreedharan, the father of Aatish Shabin, who died last year.
"You cannot call this progress. Last year, it was the first instance of what happened. After that, after all that everyone went through, I cannot come to think of it. I am appalled at the system." Aatish, who had been attending the Merryland Kindergarten in Abu Dhabi for barely a month, died on April 24 last year. Police attributed the death to "cardiorespiratory arrest", ruling out heat exhaustion and suffocation.
"No physical factor contributed to his death," a police spokesman said at the time. "His death was not caused by confinement." The parents requested that an autopsy not be conducted. The bus driver was arrested, then released on bail. No further police action was taken. Merryland Kindergarten was fined Dh5,000 (US$1,360), but the school denied any complicity in Aatish's death, saying that transportation arrangements for pupils were the responsibility of the parents. The school said in a statement that it only introduced parents to the bus companies.
In February, following a string of accidents in which schoolchildren died after being struck by vehicles, the Ministry of Education provided money for schools to hire staff members to oversee bus rides for young children. Merryland Kindergarten had been ordered to appoint such supervisors following the death of Aatish. "Once again, I am not sure who should be held responsible," Mr Sreedharan said.
"No one takes responsibility here. This shows that nothing has been enforced. Something basic should have been kept in place. These sort of basic things should be very well enforced." He said measures should have been followed in all schools following his son's death. "Even keeping a simple checklist; that can be done," Mr Sreedharan suggested. "I wish some stern action had been taken last year that would've sent out a strong message. Maybe revoke the license of the school - that sends a message. Because of that, people did not fully grasp the seriousness of the situation.
"Just a year has passed and we hear this news. I was surprised at why this was being repeated. Here, things are taken for granted. You're not transporting goods. It's a life in a bus. Something is not right." Mr Sreedharan, whose wife gave birth to a son two months ago, added: "Accidents do happen. If a child is crossing the street and is struck by a car, that is an accident. This is not an accident."
According to Aatish's bus driver, Ali Baba, the boy was discovered unconscious several hours after he stopped the vehicle at the school. In an interview with The National last year, he said he had asked the conductor if all the children had left the bus before driving off. He believes that Aatish fell asleep in the back. Mr Sreedharan said: "When your child is in someone else's mercy, you are helpless. When you pay the school fees, you expect something, that they will look after your child. But in these cases, ignoring a child is a form of child abuse."
firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Matt Kwong