How safe are school trips?

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How safe are school trips?

#1 Postby TexasStooge » Sun Mar 12, 2006 11:16 am

Few districts check bus firms' records

By MICHAEL GRABELL / The Dallas Morning News

Parents rely on schools to provide safe transportation when their children go on field trips.

But few school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area know the safety record of the charter bus companies they hire, check the backgrounds of their drivers, or inspect their vehicles.

Instead, they take the word of companies at face value and depend on overtaxed federal and state inspectors who use a flawed safety rating system to take dangerous bus companies off the road, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News.

The gaps leave risks. According to recent complaints filed by school officials:

•A bus full of Richardson sixth-graders could have gone up in flames after the driver rewired the bus's electrical system with a coat hanger.

•Plano band members had a driver who had to wipe his face with a wet cloth just to stay awake.

•And a Garland Spanish class was about to board a bus with a tire in such poor condition that the district's mechanic said it "could disintegrate at any time."

After 23 Hurricane Rita evacuees were killed when a charter bus burst into flames near Dallas in September, The News reviewed the safety records of bus companies hired by 26 public school districts in the area.

Most schools use well-known companies rated highly by government regulators and in good standing with the Better Business Bureau. Officials said they put safety first, relying on recommendations from other districts and having teachers and coaches fill out customer satisfaction surveys.

But even hiring good companies didn't stop situations that put children on dangerous buses with dangerous drivers.

"A charter company looks good on paper, but then who arrives at 6 o'clock in the morning to take the music class across the state could be a bus driver who's not in compliance," said Jim Ellis of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y. "What we recommend is up-close and personal scrutiny."

Questions to ask

Government regulators, safety advocates and bus industry groups recommend that school districts check a company's accident history and inspection record, get proof of insurance and ask a series of questions related to driver training, drug and alcohol testing and subcontractors.

But the vast majority of the 26 districts don't follow all of these recommendations. Because there is no state or federal standard specifically aimed at how to screen a charter bus company, methods vary.

School districts, such as McKinney, Irving and DeSoto, don't have a districtwide contract setting universal guidelines for charter bus trips. The search for a good company instead falls on booster clubs and student groups, whose leaders don't always know what to look for.

Other districts, such as Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Highland Park and Rockwall, handle charter bus contracts the same way they would any other business: Companies must notify them if the owner or manager has been convicted of a felony and provide a list of references. Districts reserve the right to investigate but seldom do.

Plano hires a travel agency to find charter buses. Dallas requires all buses to be newer than 1997. Garland requires samples of daily inspection checklists. Grand Prairie requires proof of a defensive driving course.

But sometimes school officials who think they're being diligent don't know who is actually transporting students because the company or bus broker they hire doesn't tell them it's using a subcontractor, or the name of the company. The News found that only six D-FW districts require a list of subcontractors in their bid requests.

"That's usually where everybody gets into trouble," said Charley Kennington, school transportation director for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "You need to do a safety check on that other company. You don't just assume they have everything they're supposed to have."

Background checks

State law forbids charter bus companies that do business with schools from using drivers who have been convicted of a felony to transport children. But it is the responsibility of the company – not the school district – to check the drivers' criminal records.

If a parent wants to make sure that's being done, they're out of luck. Most D-FW schools rely on the company's word. Grand Prairie's contract is typical. It asks: "Are criminal and civil arrest/charge records checked?" "Yes" or "No."

But the companies don't always perform the background checks. Central West and Cowtown Charters – each used by a third of local districts – were cited in their last federal safety audits for failing to make annual checks into employees' driving records.

Cowtown said some employees had gone two months too long without a check in 2001 because the company changed the time of its annual update. Central West said the company had a different manager during its 1999 check. Both companies said they have since tightened procedures, and both have good safety ratings. Federal inspectors have not audited either company in the last five years.

Most schools don't keep their own lists of a company's bus drivers.

Lewisville schools do, but as in most districts, administrators don't perform background checks themselves.

"That to me is a flaw in the whole system," Mr. Kennington said. "You don't know who you have out there as a driver. Is this a sex offender who's driving this bus? Hopefully, the company that you've hired has some scruples about them."

Lewisville administrators began requiring companies to provide them with a list of drivers who passed the background check after a series of problems in May.

On a seventh-grade trip to the state Capitol, a teacher and a driver were arguing over the volume of a movie being shown on the bus. The driver told her to stand up and raise the volume. As she did, the driver slammed on the brakes, causing her to fall down the stairs and hurt her face, leg and back, according to a complaint filed by the school.

"There were NO vehicles in front of or to the sides of our bus so the sudden stop did not seem necessary," read the complaint from a Lamar Middle School teacher.

Students also reported seeing the driver give the middle finger to another driver. Later, he repeatedly took his eyes off the road to watch the students' movie. When another teacher confronted him, he replied, "I only watch when there is no traffic," the complaint said.

The driver disputed the allegations, but the company, Gotta Go Express Trailways of Fort Worth, fired him. The company said he had passed its background check before he was hired. The school district says it was the only problem it's ever had with the company.

"Our assumption is that a criminal background check was done," said Rick Coulter, Lewisville purchasing director. "I don't have data that shows me that I can concretely say that, yes, a criminal background check was done."

Gotta Go – the most popular bus company used by local school districts – is now rated "satisfactory," according to federal regulators. Records show that it was given an "unsatisfactory" rating in 2002 after inspectors found that the company failed to conduct alcohol testing as frequently as required.

The owner, Donald Dinger, said that the company has improved and that its popularity with schools attests to its safety.

He added that he agreed with safety advocates that schools should be proactive and said he believes most companies would be open to inspections and background checks.

Mr. Ellis, of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute, said Texas officials might consider a program like one in New York, which maintains a centralized roster of charter bus drivers who have passed a criminal background check to transport children. School officials there get the names of drivers and possible substitutes before field trips and call a hotline to verify that they've passed the check.

On day of trip

Even if schools could be assured that their drivers had clean backgrounds, it takes extra scrutiny the day of the trip to ensure that the bus that shows up is in good condition and the driver is ready to go, safety advocates say.

"The people who are taking the trip have no clue as to what to be looking for," said Bill Tousley, president-elect of the National Association of Pupil Transportation and a school transportation director in suburban Detroit. "It's just a matter of good faith that the company is going to provide what they're supposed to be providing."

On Plano's Jasper High School band trip to San Antonio in April, the tour company told the band director that the drivers would be returning late from a trip the night before and would need an extra hour to get the rest required by government regulations.

But the band still had problems.

"After we left the truck stop, the new driver on the 47-passenger bus began to have trouble staying awake," band director Jackie Digby wrote in a complaint. "Our parents on that bus gave him food and wet cloths to wipe his face. They also kept him engaged in conversation."

The driver told him, Mr. Digby wrote, that he didn't get home the night before until 1 a.m., just seven hours before he arrived for his morning trip from Plano to San Antonio. Bus drivers are required by federal law to get eight hours of rest after a full day of work.

In 2004, the Richardson district encountered problems even though it hired Coach USA – a nationwide company with a good safety record – for Mohawk Elementary School's annual trip to the state Capitol.

On the way back, the bus kept losing power. The driver called Coach USA's mechanics, who told him to wire a coat hanger from the alternator to bypass a faulty part of the electrical system, according to a complaint filed by John Kelly, Richardson's transportation director.

The bus made it home safely, but Mr. Kelly was alarmed.

"The use of a coat hanger, as uninstalled wiring, is unreliable at best and could have resulted in heat buildup leading to a fire," he wrote.

Mr. Kelly confirmed the details of the incident in an interview with The News, and he said he spoke to another Coach USA manager, who expressed concern about how the bus was fixed.

Gretchen Loyd, general manager for Coach USA, said Thursday that the incident was a misunderstanding, and a coat hanger was never used to repair the bus. She said she wasn't in charge in 2004 but had pulled the work order, which noted that the bus shut down because of a broken sensor that causes the bus to stop to avoid overheating.

Mr. Ellis said school officials could do many things to ensure safety on the day of the trip. He and Mr. Kennington of DPS suggest appointing a liaison with mechanical expertise to do a walk-around inspection of the bus.

That person should also talk to the driver and check his license and logbook to ensure he's properly trained and isn't tired, Mr. Ellis said.

If a district contracts with a company for trips throughout the year, the liaison should develop a close relationship with the company, periodically checking its facilities and talking to its mechanics, he said.

"The stakes are so high, and the margin of error when you're transporting children is so small," Mr. Ellis said.

Some D-FW districts try to be vigilant with extensive questionnaires tied to their charter bus contracts.

Six of the 26 districts reviewed by The News, including Arlington and Mesquite, use a questionnaire asking, for example: Have driving records been checked? Does the company have a drug and alcohol policy? Do you have a preventive maintenance program?

But the surveys are often limited to yes-no questions. Grapevine-Colleyville's charter bus contract goes further. It specifically states that the district may perform unannounced inspections of the company's buses and maintenance and training programs. It also allows the district's field trip coordinator to conduct road tests of the company's drivers and requires the company to provide drivers' logs and daily bus reports upon request.

The district can fine companies for not complying or for having an unsanitary bathroom. Broken air conditioning costs $150 a day, according to the contract.

Grapevine-Colleyville transportation director Steve Bond says his district includes those requirements to ensure that the bus company stays safe. He said he does a surprise inspection once a year.

"For our peace of mind as a district, we like to randomly go out and inspect the carrier to make sure they're up to date on DOT physicals, the random drug testing policies, proper licensing of their drivers and their equipment, make sure the repairs and preventative maintenance is acceptable for their equipment," he said.

Garland purchasing director Mark Booker credits his district's safety checking program for catching a potentially dangerous maintenance problem in November.

When seventh-grade Spanish students from the Austin Academy for Excellence were getting ready for a trip to San Antonio, one of the parents noticed that a tire was missing a chunk of rubber and that metal was showing.

The district called one of its mechanics out who said, "he thought the tire could disintegrate at any time," principal Ann Poore wrote.

The company said it missed the problem because of the way the tire was positioned during its morning check. It wasn't until well after the trip that the district administrators learned that their contractor, Eagle Tours of Irving, had subcontracted with another company, Gene's Charters of Burleson.

Garland's 66-question survey doesn't ask about subcontractors.

Mr. Booker said the district would hold the contractor accountable by refusing its business if it continually had a problem with subcontractors.

"If we were to have a list of those companies, it wouldn't be that advantageous," he said. "Once we enter into a contract with that company, that contractor is responsible."

Gene's Charters doesn't have a poor safety record, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's rating system. None of its nine buses or 19 drivers have had serious enough violations for an inspector to take them off the road.

But it has only had two roadside inspections in 21/2 years. Because of the lack of information, the department has flagged it for mandatory inspections.

About a third of the bus companies used by D-FW school districts have been marked for mandatory inspections because government regulators don't know enough about them.

Inadequate data is a persistent problem for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the arm of the Department of Transportation that regulates bus and truck companies. With 684,000 companies and 6.5 million commercial drivers in the U.S., the agency struggles to identify the dangerous ones.

Even though the company involved in the Hurricane Rita bus fire saw its driver safety rating fall to worse than 97 percent of all bus companies, the computerized system for prioritizing checks didn't flag the company for a full-scale safety audit, The News reported in October.

The United Motorcoach Association, which represents the busing industry, puts out its own guide for schools. It also recommends that districts review the safety record online, check subcontractors and ask about driver qualifications.

As long as school officials do their homework, students will be safe, association president Victor Parra said. The majority of bus companies are professional and put safety first.

"We know the risks of carrying people as opposed to rutabagas," he said. "That puts an enormous pressure on these guys. One slip-up, and your company's gone, your house is gone, your entire future is gone. We can't put safety at risk."

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#2 Postby Persepone » Sun Mar 12, 2006 7:55 pm

When I was teaching I was on a field trip with college-age foreign students where our lives were truly in danger--and it was a miracle that we were not all killed!

Part of the problem was bus maintenance, but most of it was the inexperience of the bus driver who did not know where he was, did not have maps, and choose some dangerous ways to deal with some wrong turns!

The teacher "in charge" made it worse because she was a total nut and it was only because we were adults and one of the students had a credit card with an impossibly high limit that we were able to get the bus driver to stop, get out of the bus (over the screamed protests of the teacher in charge) and walk off the highway, over a fence and to a nearby motel where we booked a room so people could be indoors (it was pouring rain), safe, go to the bathroom, and make telephone calls to arrange alternate transporation to get home (about 75 miles). The students spoke very little English and were terrified--and being in the "middle of nowhere" in the middle of the night in the middle of a storm and having realized that we came quite literally close to dying has made me never get in such a situation again (needless to say I do not have that teaching job anymore, having sided with the "student revolt" against dangerous school bus drivers...

But yeah, that bus company transports regular public school students on field trips all the time--and to the same destination that we went to! And 10 year olds would not have the resources we had that night. Also, they would not have understood the danger, etc.

No, my grandchildren don't go on field trips like that... They get alternate transportation when they do go on field trips...

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#3 Postby TexasStooge » Mon Mar 13, 2006 11:48 am

Dallas, Highland Park schools failed to detect bus contractor's problems

By MICHAEL GRABELL / The Dallas Morning News

Second of two parts

Dallas and Highland Park school officials could have found out easily that one of their main charter bus contractors was run by a convicted cocaine dealer.

They could have found out that a federal agency listed it as having a questionable safety record. And they could have found out that it wasn't legally allowed to drive buses in Texas.

But both districts said they were unaware of the problems.

The story of one contractor that slipped through the system raises serious questions about how school districts check out charter bus companies they hire for student trips.

"It's a pretty countrywide problem," said Carmen Daecher, a nationally known expert on bus safety, who has worked for motor carriers, insurance companies and law firms.

"Unfortunately [school districts] don't do the due diligence they should. They assume, as the unsuspecting general public would assume, that 'Hey, if the guy operates a bus company, they must know how to do it,' and I think that's wrong."

Researching the safety records of charter bus companies used by Dallas-Fort Worth school districts, The Dallas Morning News found Transportation Unlimited and Star Charters, a contractor with no known record of accidents but with troubling issues.

Until last week, it was the primary charter bus contractor for Highland Park schools, which hired the firm about 200 times in the past two school years, and the No. 2 contractor at DISD, which hired it about 50 times. Transportation Unlimited is a travel broker, arranging trips for the bus company Star Charters.

Mel Jackson said he manages Transportation Unlimited from his home office. The address registered with the state is an unpaved parking lot in central Oak Cliff. The phone number traces back to his family's auto repair garage in east Oak Cliff.

Mr. Jackson started doing business with the Highland Park Independent School District in 1999. He says he was doing business with the Dallas Independent School District long before that, though school officials say their records don't go back that far.

Back then, he owned a company called J&C Transport, but it went out of business in 2003, and Transportation Unlimited was started, Mr. Jackson said. The new company is owned by his 19-year-old daughter, an out-of-town college student, and his brother, Freddie Jackson, who he said is a full-time postal worker.

Freddie Jackson also owns Star Charters, and the business address is his home in a Mesquite subdivision. He could not be reached for comment and did not return several phone messages.

Should businessman's conviction be disclosed?

Both the Dallas and Highland Park school districts said they were unaware that Mel Jackson was sentenced in 1990 to 15 years in prison for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover officer. He spent at least 18 months in jail, and his parole ended in September, criminal records show.

State law requires companies that do business with schools to disclose when any owner or operator is a convicted felon.

Transportation Unlimited/Star Charters never submitted the required felony conviction notice to DISD, according to records in the contract. Mr. Jackson claims the district lost it.

Transportation Unlimited/Star Charters did submit the form to Highland Park but left blank the question about felony convictions, contending that as a publicly held corporation it didn't have to answer. Neither business is a public company or is exempt.

Highland Park school officials declined to answer specific questions about the contractor's form, but after The News made its inquiries, the district said in a statement that it is making adjustments to its contract requirements.

"Student safety is extremely important to us in HPISD," district spokeswoman Helen Williams wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "Based on information that has come to light about Transportation Unlimited and Star Charters, HPISD has decided to discontinue its business with the companies."

Mr. Jackson said his office made a mistake on the Highland Park form. But he also said that he did not believe the law required him to tell schools about his criminal record because he's not listed as an officer of Transportation Unlimited in corporation papers.

But Mr. Jackson, not his brother or daughter, signed the district contracts and arranged trips, and he said he oversees safety.

The Texas Education Code does not define "owner or operator." But a spokesman with the state attorney general's office, which interprets laws for state agencies, said an operator would be someone who manages the business but is not an owner.

DISD, contractor clash over conviction notice

An undated memo in Transportation Unlimited's file at DISD says the purchasing and athletic departments tried repeatedly to obtain the contractor's felony conviction notice. When they didn't, the district said it would not do business with the company.

But it didn't. DISD hired Transportation Unlimited about four dozen times in the 2004-05 school year.

Ron Peace, deputy superintendent over business services, blamed miscommunication. He said the district never intended to send a mixed message that contractors don't need to play by district rules.

The district removed the bus company from its districtwide vendor list, said Greg Milton, DISD's purchasing director. But piecemeal hiring of the company by the athletic department or individual schools continued. Invoices show that business with Transportation Unlimited added up to $44,000 in the 2004-05 school year, well over the $25,000 minimum that would require a districtwide contract.

"Because there are so many campuses, the campuses and the athletic department might not necessarily know that they are even using the same service," Mr. Milton said.

Mr. Peace said last week that the business services department will tighten its oversight.

"We're notifying campuses, notifying principals, departments that they ought to check with us if they're not going to use vendors that we have listed," he said.

Mr. Jackson says he suspects the district lost his felony conviction notice and created the undated memo to cover up its mistake.

"I don't know why they're trying to cover their butts, but it's going to make them look stupid because they did do business," he said.

School business experts say not having the proper felony conviction form opens the district to liability if the company is ever involved in an accident.

It also raises the question: If Dallas and Highland Park didn't know the company's manager had a felony conviction, what do they really know about those driving schoolchildren?

Bus companies aren't allowed to use felons on school trips, but it is the company's responsibility – not the school district's – to ensure that doesn't happen.

Mr. Jackson said he realizes that people may judge him by his past. He says what should be more important is what he has made of himself. He says he gives back to the community, donating toys to children at Christmas and bus transportation for the homeless to a free Thanksgiving meal.

Betty Anderson, who runs Betty Lin Early Childhood Learning Center, said Mr. Jackson is always willing to donate a bus to take the children to the movie theater or the circus. The center has gone on about five trips a year arranged by Mr. Jackson for more than decade.

"We have never been on a bus that was not modern and not safe," she said. "He's a very giving, warm person."

Said Mr. Jackson: "You can't kill someone for one mistake. You've got to give somebody a second chance."

Regulators misreport charter's safety record

Mr. Jackson says he's also the victim of flaws in the federal safety rating system, which as recently as February reported safety problems with Transportation Unlimited and said the company had a questionable record. In fact, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration admits some of the information was wrong and has since removed the report.

If school districts had looked at the system, posted on a public Web site, they would've seen a report showing Transportation Unlimited had either a bus or a driver ordered off the road every time a bus was stopped by regulators.

The violations caused Transportation Unlimited's safety scores to appear much worse than nearly all other companies hired by school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But because Transportation Unlimited is a broker and doesn't have any buses, it shouldn't have a motor carrier safety rating at all.

"This stuff here that they put on the Web site is so incorrect, it's ridiculous," Mr. Jackson said.

Ian Grossman, a motor carrier agency spokesman, said, "Essentially, what this guy's telling you is the true and accurate story."

Mr. Jackson explained the mix-ups this way: After his old bus company, J&C Transport, went out of business in the summer of 2003 and filed for bankruptcy, he began leasing buses to other companies. State troopers mistakenly attributed their violations to him instead of to the companies that leased the buses. And that led to the questionable safety record when Transportation Unlimited opened as a bus broker in December 2003.

Soon after, brother Freddie Jackson purchased two motor coaches and began running Star Charters as a bus company, Mel Jackson said. "All new drivers. All new buses. Everything is totally different," he said.

Star Charters, which as a bus company should be given a safety rating, has had one driver put out of service in four inspections, and no vehicles have ever been ordered off the road.

Mr. Milton of DISD says the district didn't need to check out Transportation Unlimited because it was removed from the list of approved vendors – even though it did the second-most amount of business in the district through individual athletic teams and student groups.

Highland Park officials said they didn't know about the Web site. Ms. Williams, the spokeswoman, said the district relies on complaints from parents and teachers to assess a company's safety. And it could find only one complaint in seven years about the Jackson family's companies. That, she wrote in an e-mail, "indicates that the system is working well."

In January 2005, a band director at Highland Park Middle School complained that a bus arranged by Transportation Unlimited stalled several times on Interstate 635 as students went to a band clinic in Coppell.

"Cars were rapidly coming up on our rear and having to slow down very quickly, placing our students in danger," said the complaint from Tommy Fain, associate director of bands at the time. "It's hard to put into words how horrifying it was to sit dead in the middle of all that traffic so many times for two hours."

Mr. Jackson said that buses, like any mechanical equipment, are bound to break down and that students were never in danger.

After questions, charter gets registration in order

The safety record of the two districts' contractor may not be as poor as federal authorities had implied, but Star Charters has had basic problems that normally would prevent any school district from using it.

Like many districts, Highland Park and DISD mainly require proof of insurance and proper licensing from bus contractors. But according to the Texas Department of Transportation, Star Charters has had problems with both.

"They're not properly registered," Michael Dewbre, spokesman for the agency that oversees all bus companies operating in Texas, said earlier this month.

The state Transportation Department began investigating the company's compliance after a DeSoto police officer inspected one of its buses on Feb. 10 and found a registration violation, he said. The bus had "Transportation Unlimited" on the side, and the driver told the officer that he was working for Star Charters.

State regulators said that Star Charters had never been registered for any in-state bus trips. That meant almost every time Star Charters carried Highland Park or DISD students on its buses, it was violating federal regulations.

Star Charters also hadn't had any insurance on file with the state Transportation Department since November 2004. While the company had insurance on file with federal authorities, not filing it with the state violates the state transportation code and can bring fines up to $30,000.

Mr. Milton said DISD didn't check with the Transportation Department because the district didn't anticipate doing much business with the company after removing it from the districtwide vendor list. Highland Park did not answer questions about Star Charters' problems.

Then last week, as The News was asking about these issues, Star Charters moved to clear up the discrepancies. State records show that Star Charters applied for in-state registration on Wednesday. And at 4 p.m. on Friday, after proof of insurance was filed with the state, it was granted permission to operate inside Texas.

Mel Jackson said the company that Star Charters hired to handle its registration forgot to file it. He said he didn't know the company's name. "It was laying on somebody's desk," he said Sunday.

Meanwhile, Transportation Unlimited had its own problems with the Texas secretary of state's office. Business records showed it forfeited its corporation status in October after it failed to pay franchise taxes. As of Friday, a state Web site showed no change.

Then on Sunday, Mr. Jackson faxed The News a letter from the state comptroller's office, which said that as of this week the company has met all its tax requirements and has been reinstated.

Mr. Jackson said the company was never notified of any tax problems. "It might have been something that we missed," he said. "But if we missed it, it ain't like we were trying to miss it."
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