NEWS:   A school district in West Islip, New York issued a “safety alert” warning parents of reports someone tried to lure children into an unmarked bus.

On 4 September 2015, West Islip Public Schools (in West Islip, New York) issued a “safety alert” to parents regarding an “unmarked bus.”

The letter [PDF] outlined a number of safety measures advised by the district in light of the rumors:

The West Islip School District was recently informed of an incident in which a female driver in an unmarked mini school bus encouraged two elementary students to “come on the bus” while they were walking home on Higbie Lane. The soft-spoken female driver was reported to be between the ages of 20-30, and was wearing black pants, a blue top, and a hat similar to that worn by a police officer. The yellow mini bus had no markings on the side, but the rear exit door was painted black with a white or light pink star or flower. The students continued to walk along Higbie Lane and returned home safely. A police report has been filed.

The claim was subsequently carried by a number of local (or localized) news outlets, such as CBS New York, WABC, and the New York Daily News. However, none of those outlets provided any information beyond the details contained in the district’s letter, nor was there any indication of additional investigation into its claims.

The warning (dated 4 September 2015) was issued just two days after the district’s first day of school on 2 September 2015 [PDF]; the date on which the purported school bus encounter occurred was not provided. It wasn’t clear whether the two elementary school students encountered the counterfeit bus on 2 or 3 September 2015 (or if the incident occurred during the prior school year); the account relayed neither a time of day nor a particular location along Higbie Lane as the site of the unsettling interaction.

Another confusing element of the warning was the purported existence of a school-bus-driving impostor, equipped with an actual decommissioned school bus, presumably obtained for the purpose of luring young schoolchildren. The vehicle described was certainly unusual enough to turn heads; and it’s difficult to imagine most of West Islip and its surrounding towns didn’t go on immediate high alert with respect to a strange fake bus adorned with a “star or flower.” Such a conveyance wasn’t likely to slip in among the other cars on the road very easily, but we were unable to locate reports of any subsequent sightings.

So while West Islip Schools indeed issued a warning to parents regarding a fake school bus (with a driver) allegedly spotted in the area, that warning did not include a time, date, location, or any details other than an account of undetermined veracity. Ultimately, it was difficult to determine whether the encounter described occurred as reported, whether parents relayed the rumors to the school based on hearsay, or if two young children misconstrued an entirely different interaction (which was subsequently disseminated as a warning in an abundance of caution). The warning itself was issued not by police after deeming its details credible, but rather by the school district based on unspecified information.

Similar rumors involving fake buses luring kids have previously circulated in other locations; none appeared to have ever been substantiated. In February 2014, Ontario police investigated “social media rumors” of a fake school bus; similarly, a school district in Washington State warned parents about rumors of fake school buses luring kids to come aboard in April 2014. (A subsequent investigation “confirmed that the bus in question was a school district bus occupied by a new driver and a trainer who were on legitimate business conducting a bus stop exercise.”)

We were unable to locate any reports indicating such claims ever turned out to be anything other than investigations inspired by localized urban legends; nor did we find any cases of kidnappers using school buses to facilitate the abduction of students (versus the use of common vehicles that would enable a smoother getaway). The rumors were similar to ones that circulated earlier in 2015 about the “72-hour challenge” and the “Paracetamol challenge“; while neither panic was rooted in genuine threats, school district-issued warnings lent an air of credence to otherwise implausible claims.

We contacted Suffolk County Police to find out whether any further information was available about the safety warning; and the individual with whom we spoke indicated that police have no new information at this time.