Last month, just days before Thanksgiving, a school bus carrying 37 Woodmore Elementary school children, a public elementary school located in the heart of Chattanooga’s Brainerd community, slammed into a tree, flipped over, and split open. Six children lost their lives, more than one dozen were injured, and an entire community was left traumatized and in mourning.
As the investigation progressed, local officials reported that the school bus driver, Johnthony Walker, lost control of the bus while driving too fast on an unauthorized route. Walker was arrested on vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving charges. Official court documents state that Walker was charged “because of the reckless nature of Mr. Walker’s driving, combined with his very high speed and weaving within his lane.”
The 24 year old had been driving school buses for only 7 months, and according to official records had also been the subject of several complaints going back to at least September. Records show that students and parents had complained about Walker’s alleged disregard for children’s safety, and that a principal expressed concern about Walker’s driving twice in the weeks before the crash. Last month’s accident was the second time in two months that Walker crashed a school bus. Police records characterized the first accident as a “minor wreck” and reported that no children were injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) estimates that it will be at least 18 months before the agency releases a report. Walker remains in police custody, awaiting a possible grand jury indictment. Chattanooga has been instantaneously placed at the center of a public conversation about school bus safety that has raised many questions.
“Why don’t those buses have seatbelts?” “How was it possible for the driver to be on an unauthorized route?” So, the county contracts with another company to get children to and from school?” “What can be done to prevent this tragedy?”
Soon after the crash, it was learned that the bus Walker was driving was owned and operated by Durham School Services, an Illinois based company that, according to Durham’s website, is a subsidiary of National Express, LLC – the second largest provider of outsourced school bus services in the United States and Canada.
According to the National School Transportation Association, an advocacy group for bus contractors, schools hire outside companies to transport students to and from school and for special trips. These outside companies then hire their own drivers and operate and maintain their own buses. School administrators boast that this practice saves money and cuts administrative challenges that come with running their own busing system. Research and case studies tell a different story.
Here are few recent studies about the outsourcing of school bus transportation.
- School districts that contract with private bus operators end up spending more taxpayer dollars on transportation than those school districts that mange their own bus fleets. Source: Keystone Research Center. “Privatized School Buses Cost Taxpayers More: New study recommends in-sourcing school transportation operations to save taxpayers millions.” 2012.
- Some private transportation vendors will negotiate a discounted rate to buy a district’s bus fleet and manipulate the data to falsely show savings or show savings by eliminating services, such as by cutting out routes. Source: District Administration Magazine. “Ins and Outs of Outsourcing: What you need know before you the plunge.
- Once a school district sells its fleet of buses, it then typically becomes too costly to in-source that service since the district normally won’t have the necessary capital to purchase new buses again. Source: District Administration Magazine. “Ins and Outs of Outsourcing: What you need know before you the plunge.
- There are high turnover rates among personnel employed by outsourcing firms, which sometimes translates into not enough employees to get the job done properly and/or inadequate training of new hires. Source: American Association of School Administrators. “Weighing Outsourcing: You may save money on school services for the district, yet does it come with unintended consequences.”
Despite these studies, outsourcing is still a common practice.
For the 2012-2013 school year, School Bus Fleet, a trade publication marketed to school transportation executives, published that 34.7% of school buses nationwide are owned by contractors – a 9.1% increase from the years 2007-08.
Durham has a satisfactory safety rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the lead federal government agency responsible for regulating and providing safety oversight of commercial motor vehicles.
As for Durham drivers, 53 “unsafe driving” violations were reported in the last two years, most of which (30) involved failing to use a seat belt, the administration said. Other of the more frequent violations were failing to obey a traffic control device (eight), using a mobile phone while operating (seven) and following too close (three).
The bus company in 2007 was given a “conditional safety rating” from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It was later upgraded to “satisfactory” after the unspecified problems were resolved, said Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. A website lists the most recent satisfactory rating date as July 31, 2015.
In the last two years, the company’s buses have been involved in 346 crashes before Monday, resulting in four deaths and injuries to about 275 people, the FMCSA says.
Passenger lap and shoulder belts have been available on school buses, since 2002. Currently, only six states – California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas require them. Since 2008, federal law has required the use of lap and shoulder belts on small school buses, defined as school buses with a gross vehicle weight or 10,000 lbs or less, and the capacity to transport up to 15 students or fewer. Federal law does not require the use of lap and shoulder belts on large school buses, defined as school buses with a gross vehicle weight of more than 10,000 lbs and the capacity to carry up to 90 passengers.
Despite the support and petitions of non-profits and child safety advocacy groups, including the American Association of Pediatrics and the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, the federal government had been reluctant to even offer support for the use of lap and safety belts on large school buses, until last year.
In 2015, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing vehicle performance standards stated its support for lap and shoulder belts on large school buses.
“NHTSA’s policy is that every school bus should have a three-point seat belt,” said Dr. Mark Rosekind, NHTSA Administrator.
Why did the federal government take so long? – The use of safety technology known as compartmentalization that has been effect since the year 1977.
Compartmentalization follows the rationale that children riding in school buses are protected like eggs in an egg carton – compartmentalized, and surrounded with padding and structural integrity to secure the entire container. The concept of compartmentalization is to place children between two high-backed, energy-absorbing seats. In a frontal or rear collision (or even sudden stops) children can be thrown into the seat in front of them. While they may be spared more serious injuries, they are often still injured, receiving everything from bumps and bruises to concussions. However, crash simulations demonstrate that compartmentalization does not protect passengers in crashes where the school bus rolls over or in crashes where there is a side impact. Also compartmentalization is only effective when children are seated and facing forward with their feet on floor.
NHTSA now recommends that either states or school districts consider this added safety benefit when purchasing buses. Last year, 12 states introduced bills that would require school buses to have seat belts installed, but none of the bills passed.
Two Tennessee lawmakers announced plans to see legislation requiring the use of seat belts on school buses immediately after the Woodmore incident.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said that he started working on legiskato9ns as soon as he heard about the crash, and that he is leaning towards a bill that would require retrofitting every school bus in the state.
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said that she plans to introduce seat belt legislation, as well.
Such legislation was last discussed at the State capital in 2015, after a fatal bus crash in Knoxville claimed the lives of two students and an adult aide. That legislation, introduced by then Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville called for the purchase of new school buses as opposed to retrofitting buses that are already in service with seat belts.
Governor Haslam has also stated that now is the time to have conversations about school bus safety.
“To me it’s a good discussion to have,” Haslam said. “I think when this is over its time to have a good conversation about everything around school buses”.
NATIONAL CONVERSATIONS AND POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
What follows are a series of recommendations and strategies for consideration by state policy-makers, compiled from school bus safety advocacy groups across the nation.
District-Level Infrastructure for Safety Planning
- School Transportation managers and supervisors should be included in district-wide and building-level safety planning
- School transportation facilities and equipment should be included in district-wide and building-level safety planning
- Information on school bus design and construction should be included in the materials that are shared with law enforcement, fire departments and first responders to facilitate their actions and access to students on a school bus involved in an incident
School Bus Equipment and Related Procedures
- Installation of GPS/Telematics to allow greater management and monitoring of school buses on their routes
- Install video cameras with live-feed and still camera options to allow more timely and accurate information about incidents that occur on the school bus
- Identification numbers and information on the roof of the school bus
- Standard use of real-time GPS devices on school buses
- Installation of lights or similar signal that will alert law enforcement officials that a school bus is in distress
- Development and installation of different glass products to afford better protection for students Development and installation of more secure entrance doorways for school buses
School Transportation Policies and Staffing Issues
- Make provisions for locking school bus entrance doors, hatches, rear emergency doors and roof hatches when the school buses are not in use or are parked away from the school transportation facility
- Allow the costs of school bus monitors to be eligible for state transportation aid as a means to ensure the presence of additional adult supervision on the school bus
Driver and Related Training
- Identifying suspicious behavior and/or suspicious individuals
- Appropriate reporting of individuals or incidents of concern or suspicion
- Appropriate use of physical force in deterring a violent action
- Interacting with law enforcement and emergency responders in a violent incident
- Risk assessment training for school bus drivers
- Confrontation and de-escalation training for school bus drivers
- Provide training for drivers in performing a security-centered pre-trip inspection Providing training for law enforcement, fire departments and first responders on the design and construction of school buses to facilitate their responses
- Training and preparation for a school-bus-based lockdown situation
- Increased training related to “see something-say something” as students have opportunities at the start and the end of the day to discuss concerns with their bus driver