A Saskatoon school bus driver has pleaded guilty to impaired driving for swallowing a dangerous mix of anti-depressants and painkillers that led to a terrifying ride for a group of students last spring.
Donna Gerlinsky, 63, pleaded guilty in provincial court Tuesday. A second charge of dangerous driving was withdrawn.
Judge David Arnot handed the woman a one-year conditional sentence she can serve in the community, followed by six months probation. He also prohibited her from driving for 18 months.
"She was absolutely distraught over what happened to the kids," said her defence lawyer, Morris Bodnar.
"Those kids were everything to her."
He said Gerlinsky lost her partner of 31 years shortly before the incident on May 30, 2007.
"She went into a state of depression," he said.
She was prescribed medication to treat her depression, but forgot to take those pills that morning.
Bodnar said she completed a charter trip without incident and returned home about noon to find someone cleaning out her partner's room. She was upset.
About 2 p.m., she took the anti-depressants, he said. She also took two painkillers.
"Unknown to her, the two of them didn't mix," Bodnar said.
Gerlinsky picked up the children from St. Matthew School, a K-8 Catholic school on Arlington Avenue, just before 3:30 p.m., about the same time the drugs kicked in.
She forgot her route and, according to police at the time, the bus took an erratic path up and down Eighth Street.
Gerlinsky even dropped one student off at the wrong stop.
Children were crying and screaming. Some wrote signs saying, "Help" and "Call 911," hoping passing motorists would call police.
Some students said Gerlinsky, lethargic and slurring her words, also sideswiped a parked car.
Dispatchers with the First Bus Canada company, unable to get a hold of Gerlinsky for 20 minutes, sent out "rescue buses."
Another bus driver helped pull Gerlinsky's bus over about 4 p.m. The remaining children were sent home on another bus.
Gerlinsky, a driver with First Bus for 12 years, was suspended indefinitely from her job.
Bodnar said Gerlinsky has been unemployed since the incident and will likely not drive a bus again.
She is still so upset about what happened, he said, she broke into tears outside the courtroom after the sentencing.
A father of children on the bus walked over to shake her hand and thanked her for "doing the right thing," Bodnar said.
Greater Saskatoon Public Schools has since adopted new transportation communication protocols to better handle similar situations.
A senior student on each bus acts as a monitor and is trained in how to work two-way radios in case the driver becomes incapacitated.