Bus driver in Summer Steele death pleads guilty, begins one-year jail sentence

  • Tendzin Parsons was sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty in Northampton District Court Friday morning. Stephen Ferrarone, his lawyer stands with him. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tendzin Parsons was sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty in Northampton District Court Friday morning. Stephen Ferrarone, his lawyer stands with him. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

For The Recorder
Friday, January 05, 2018

NORTHAMPTON – A Hawley bus driver began a one-year jail sentence Friday after accepting the same term he rejected in a plea deal in September.

Tendzin Parsons, 71, pleaded guilty in Northampton District Court to negligent motor vehicle homicide in the Oct. 28, 2016 death of 9-year-old Summer Steele, who was a third-grade student at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield. She died after her backpack got caught in the door of the bus while she was exiting in front of her home and she was run over, according to a police investigation.

Parsons was scheduled to appear in court Friday morning on a motion hearing but to the surprise of the prosecutor, Parsons accepted a one-year jail sentence. Apart from some routine questions Judge W. Michael Goggins asked before accepting the change of plea, little was said during the brief hearing.

Tearful and angry victim impact statements had already been heard by Goggins months before on Sept. 8, 2017, when Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Andrew Covington and defense attorney Stephen Ferrarone presented an agreed-upon plea of 2½ years in jail, which would have been suspended for four years as long as Parsons complied with the terms of his probation.

During that September hearing, Goggins rejected the recommendation and told the attorneys that while the agreed-upon plea did not strike him as unreasonable, “reasonable minds can disagree on what the sentence should be in a case like this.” Instead, the judge ordered a one-year jail sentence which would have begun that day. Because Goggins’ sentence was different than that of the agreement presented to Parsons, Parsons was given the opportunity to withdraw his plea, which he did.

“This is not a crime of intent,” Goggins said at the time. “It’s a crime of negligence, but it’s a crime based on an act of colossal negligence for which the ultimate price was paid by a beautiful young child.”

In handing down the sentence Friday morning, Goggins described it as fair and reasonable.

“It’s proportionate to gravity of the defense and the culpability of the defendant and the sentence accounts for the defendant’s age, lack of prior criminal history, his willingness to accept responsibility, and accept the punishment thereby allowing Summer’s family to avoid the inevitable pain, and uncertainty and emotional roller coaster associated with a trial,” he said.

Parsons was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs Friday morning. The conviction also carries a mandatory 15 year loss of driver’s license.

Outside the courtroom, Summer’s parents, extended family and friends exchanged hugs and cried. Speaking on behalf of Summer’s family following the hearing, attorney Eric J. Lucentini said that the Steele family accepted the outcome.

“Nothing will ever replace Summer,” he said.

“The Steeles will be working toward bus safety for all children in the months and years to come … so that nothing like this ever happens to another child,” he added.

Shortly after the October 2016 incident, Parsons explained to police that he had dropped two children off in front of 43 South Central St. in Plainfield and saw the first child get off the bus and run up her driveway, Massachusetts State Trooper John Riley wrote in a probable cause statement filed in court.

Parsons then told officers he began thinking about his next drop-off and failed to ensure that the second child — Summer — was clear of the doors before closing them and driving away, Riley wrote.

Her parents saw the accident occur when they stepped outside of their home to greet Summer and her younger sister at the end of the school day. She was pronounced dead at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield shortly before 5 p.m. that day. Brent Steele, Summer’s father, told police the door was shut “before (the child’s) feet were even on the ground,” court records state. The office of the chief medical examiner in Holyoke ruled the cause of Summer’s death to be blunt force injury to the torso.

Police said with the bus motor running and the heat and fan on, it was likely that those noises would have impeded Parsons’ ability to hear any yelling or screaming.