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Questions follow lapse on Wellesley Metco bus

When Natercia Dias picked up her 5-year-old son at his school bus stop in Dorchester late Tuesday afternoon, she noticed a second young boy standing alone on the sidewalk.

The boy was quiet and calm, said Dias. He did not appear frightened and he did not resist when she started rifling through his backpack in search of any information that could identify him, she said. As it turned out, the kindergartner was miles from his Wellesley home.

Thanks to Dias and other parents at the bus stop, the black kindergartner -- who had been mistaken for a student in the Metco desegregation program, put on a Metco bus at the end of his after-school program in Wellesley, and dropped off in Dorchester -- found his way back to his family.

"Everybody else was gone and he was just standing there," Dias said yesterday, recalling the scene at the bus stop. "He was completely confused. I asked him, `Is this where you get off?' and he said, `Yes.' Everything I asked him, he said, `Yes.' "

Officials of the after-school program, run by the Wellesley Community Children's Center, launched an investigation this week into whether racial bias clouded the judgment of the white teacher who directed the child to the Metco bus on the first day of school.

The center's executive director, Mary Kloppenberg, said she believes that first-day confusion probably led to the mixup, not racial bias. But she said the center's board of directors will meet this weekend and form a panel to look into the matter.

Metco's executive director, Jean McGuire, said this is not the first time that a minority student from the suburbs has been ushered onto Metco buses.

"If you assume that nobody black lives in your town, this is what's going to happen, and it happens every year," McGuire said.

Kloppenberg said she did not want to draw any conclusions before the investigation was complete, but said she believes the mixup was an inadvertent mistake.

"The teacher [who brought the boy to the bus] feels really bad," Kloppenberg said. "The mistake was immediately acknowledged by him. He communicated with the family. He's a really good person; it was just a bad mistake."

She pointed to several factors that could have contributed to the mixup.

The Metco bus, which is run by a company under contract with the Wellesley public schools, was more than an hour late arriving Tuesday at Wellesley High School, where the after-school program is located, Kloppenberg said. The Metco students were brought back and forth from the building to the parking lot several times while waiting for the bus, and Wellesley children sometimes joined them, she said.

In addition, one of the nine Metco students in the program was picked up by a parent, so when the Wellesley boy boarded the bus, the total number of students on board was correct, said center officials.

To prevent future mixups, Kloppenberg said, from now on teachers who put students on the bus must call out each child's first and last name, and check off each one from a list of Metco students, before letting them board.

The Metco program, which serves approximately 3,100 students, buses about 140 Boston pupils to Wellesley, including 10 kindergartners this year. About 13 percent of the approximately 4,000 students in the Wellesley public schools are minorities. Four percent are black.

Regardless of how it was that the boy boarded the bus in Wellesley, Dias said, the Metco bus monitor never should have allowed him off the bus in Dorchester.

Another Metco parent, who had a cellphone, called the boy's family and arranged for him to be picked up at her Mattapan home. But Dias said she is now worried for her own child's safety during his hourlong commute.

"All of these people need to be more aware," she said. "There are a lot of crazy people out here, and they shouldn't let kids get off the bus with just anyone."

When Dias arrived at the bus stop at the corner of Talbot Avenue and Harvard Street late Tuesday, she said, she climbed the stairs of the bus and gave her son's name to the monitor, who checked it off on a list. Dias speculated that the Wellesley boy had befriended her son, who is also a kindergartner, and followed her son off the bus.

When the handful of parents and children cleared, Dias started asking the boy questions. She looked through his backpack and found what appeared to be a school form with his family's contact information, she said. "And I was, like, wait a minute, this kid doesn't live in Boston."

McGuire said she will look into the bus monitor's role in the mixup.

Wellesley residents and students in the Metco program reacted to the incident yesterday with a mixture of disdain, annoyance, and puzzlement.

"I think it's disgusting and horrible and I don't know anyone racist and prejudiced in the area," said Tricia Wynn, a white mother of three. High school student Richonna Dennis, 16, who participates in Metco, has been bused from Dorchester since kindergarten. "I thought it was kind of racist in a way to assume that just because he's African-American, he should be sent to Boston," she said.

Some students, however, thought those who considered the incident an illustration of racial prejudice were making too much of it. "It's not that important, but some people are calling it racial profiling," said Kaina Sinif, 15, who is black and has lived in Wellesley for seven years. "It was a mistake that it happened."

The incident confused Wellesley resident Karen Haberly, whose 5-year-old son attends a preschool program run by the children's center. "There are so few [children] who are bused in . . . How could they mix them up?" she said. "I'd have to say a black person gets noticed. There are just not that many here."

Globe correspondent Suzanne Sataline contributed to this report.

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