Family of special needs student found dead on school bus speaks out

September 14, 2015
Lee Seung-yeon holds family photos of her little brother, Hun Joon Lee. (Choi Kyung-geun/Korea Times)

Lee Seung-yeon holds family photos of her little brother, Hun Joon Lee. (Choi Kyung-geun/Korea Times)

By Park Ju-yeon

Hun Joon Lee, a 19-year-old student with autism, was found dead last Friday inside a school bus in Whittier, Los Angeles County, during a heat wave.

Hun Joon Lee, center, with his parents Lee Sang-sik, left, and Lee Eun-ha, right, celebrating his 15th birthday.

Hun Joon Lee, center, with his parents Lee Sang-sik, left, and Lee Eun-ha, right, celebrating his 15th birthday.

Lee, a Korean American who also went by the name Paul, died around 4:20 p.m. inside a bus that had picked him up around 8:30 a.m. headed for Sierra Vista Adult School, police said.

He is thought to have been left in the bus all day.

His mother, Lee Eun-ha, called the school worried when he did not return home after school hours.

His body was discovered on the floor of the bus following her call. Bus drivers and police attempted CPR to no avail.

“Nothing that we’ve learned so far would lead us to believe he had any medical conditions,” said Brad White, an officer with Whittier Police Department.

He said police are investigating how long Hun Joon Lee was inside the bus.

The 36-year-old bus driver who picked him up was taken into custody but released after investigation.

Sandy Thorstenson, Whittier School District superintendent, told CBS Los Angeles that “this tragedy has devastated all of us.”

“The District is calling for a speedy and thorough investigation to determine how something like this could happen,” she said. “Our hearts are with our student’s parents and family — we’re all grieving.”

Lee Eun-ha and Lee Sang-sik, Hun Joon Lee’s parents, left South Korea and immigrated to the United States in 2000 to better care for their son after learning of his condition at age 4.

They had since sent Hun Joon Lee to special needs schools in Southern California and to Korean American disability programs like Milal Classroom of Love.

Lee Seung-yeon, 23, Hun Joon Lee’s sister, said her brother — who was 180 centimeters tall and 200 pounds — had severe autism and had trouble speaking, eating and using the bathroom by himself.

“I cannot believe no one noticed that my little brother had not left the bus,” she said, in tears.

Lee Seung-yeon said her brother normally would have finished school by 2 p.m. and arrived back home around 3:30 p.m.

“If Hun Joon ever had to stay home because he was sick, my mother always called the school teacher to let them know,” she said. “Although he didn’t show up in class that day, there were no measures taken.”

Hun Joon Lee would have turned 20 years old at the end of September.

“Our family thought my brother would have a more comfortable life living as a disabled person in America,” Lee Seung-yeon said. “Every time we came upon hardship in the early days of our immigration here, that’s what we thought about.”

“If at least one person had checked on the bus to see if students had left any items, or to see if all students had gotten off, a tragedy like this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “I hope what happened to Hun Joon becomes an opportunity for people to give more attention and love to children with disabilities.”

The family has set up a crowdfunding effort for the funeral.

“On September 11, 2015, my one and only autistic brother, Paul, was found dead in the school bus due to the school faculty members’ lack of awareness of his presence,” Lee Seung-yeon wrote. “Inside the bus was about 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and Paul was trapped in there for almost nine hours without a single drop of water. My family is completely torn apart and heartbroken, knowing what he had felt during those painful hours. We are hit so hard with his sudden tragedy.”

Visit the GoFundMe page at

(Photo KTLA)

(Photo KTLA)


  1. Pat M

    September 14, 2015 at 3:20 PM

    Such a tragedy and loss to our community. Measures must be taken to ensure safety precautions are taken to prevent this from happening again. Paul could not speak but we can.

  2. Angel Fisher

    September 15, 2015 at 2:13 PM

    I am angry and my heart is full of sorrow for the loss of this sweet soul. From one autistic child’s mom to another I can’t express my anger and disbelief no one from bus transportation or the school cared about his absence. I am so sorry for this families loss, and in disbelief this happens.

  3. Winderful

    September 19, 2015 at 3:45 PM

    As an employee of LAUSD I ride a bus each day with our special kids. I pray LAUSD, Whittier & every school district wakes up & sees that a trained assistant should be on every single bus that picks up students from the beginning of the first pick up in the morning to the last student drop off in the afternoon. This should apply for all students but even more so for our most fragile special needs Angels. Even a well trained driver makes mistakes! Wake up people, two heads on a bus are better than one! How many accidents, injuries, tramas & deaths will it take for school officials to use the resources to protect our children! To the Lee Family I’m devastated for the loss of Paul!