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Mark Stodghill, Forum News Service , Published January 26 2013

Minn. bus driver charged with leaving child on school bus

MAHTOWA, Minn. - A school bus driver from Mahtowa was charged Friday with child endangerment after a 3-year-old boy was left alone on his bus for three hours with temperatures hovering around zero.

Thomas Mitchell Soderholm, 53, is accused of endangering Ty Stiffarm on Jan. 14 by permitting the boy to be placed in a situation “likely to substantially harm the child’s physical, mental or emotional health.” The crime is a gross misdemeanor punishable by a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $3,000 fine, but under state sentencing guidelines it would result in a presumptive probationary sentence.

The boy’s mother, Brooklynn Wait, said she was happy the driver was charged.

“There’s no explanation for what he did, really,” she said. “In my eyes, plain and simple, he should have done his job.”

Mahtowa is about 30 miles southwest of Duluth.

The criminal complaint makes it difficult to understand how Soderholm could have missed seeing the boy still on the bus. The complaint states that the boy was seated in the first row behind the driver on the opposite side of the bus, where he should have been seen when the driver got up from his seat and exited the bus.

According to the complaint:

Fond du Lac reservation law enforcement was informed by the Fond du Lac Transportation Department that the boy had been left on Head Start bus No. 31 after being picked up for school on Jan. 14, but not dropped off at the school. The boy was picked up at his home about 6:55 a.m. that day. At about 11 a.m., a Fond du Lac Transportation employee was walking by the Head Start bus and noticed the boy waving and pounding on a bus window.

The reservation’s transportation department policy is to have a bus monitor ensure that the bus is empty and no children are left behind. Soderholm told investigators that the bus monitor told him the bus was empty.

The investigation revealed that the bus monitor has some cognitive disabilities that were known to Soderholm. The bus monitor admitted to investigators that despite having a policy requiring him to check the bus he might not have done so on the date the boy was left on the bus.

Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver told the News Tribune that Soderholm is no longer employed by the reservation. She said it was a personnel issue and declined to elaborate.

“We cooperated with the investigation and left it in the county attorney’s hands,” Diver said. “They deemed this appropriate and we’re just grateful that the child is OK. This gave us a chance to reiterate to staff to follow policy.”

A young child’s voice was on Soderholm’s home telephone answering machine Friday telling callers that no one was home and to leave a message. Soderholm didn’t immediately respond to a News Tribune message seeking comment.

Soderholm has been summoned to make his first appearance in State District Court in Carlton on Feb. 4. He has no criminal record. According to court records, he had a traffic offense for expired registration in 2000.

Asked how her son was doing Friday evening, Wait said: “He’s doing wonderful. He’s in therapy and getting back on track.”