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One cheek on and one cheek off: safe school bus practice?

By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, October 6th, 2011 at 6:28 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

During the past week, parents of a student who used to attend Glenbrook Middle School have spoken up, alleging the district’s efforts to transport displaced students from the closed Glenbrook campus to El Dorado Middle School are unsafe.

Ron Quinn sent the following (excerpted) e-mail to the school board Tuesday:

“My son attended Glenbrook last year but with the closure is now attending El Dorado Middle school. We are about 4 miles away and have had to purchase a bus pass to get him to and from school in the amount of ($85) per semester. Today we were not able to send him to school because of a serious safety issue with the school district’s transportation. We were told that there would be a least two school busses that would pick up and drop off children at Glenbrook. This has not happened. There is one bus in the morning and three busses in the afternoon. Not sure why this is but this morning there was an in excess of 66 children for one bus. Three children per seat are not safe. Many of the kids are sitting half in the seat and half in the aisle….I am not very happy about this situation and would find it hard to believe that the school district would purposely be placing children in danger. Please let me know what the actual bussing schedule is because what we have been seeing is not what has been advertised …”

When he got no immediate response, Quinn sent this (excerpted) e- mail to the Times:

“After two hours of no response I called … and was directed to the Transportation department. I talked to a lady named Connie who is in charge of the busses. I asked her about the bussing situation because today the bus was too crowded to safely send our child to school. She clarified a couple of things for me. 1) there is only one bus in the morning to pick kids up. 2) there are two busses in the afternoon — one to take kids home at the end of school and then a 5:30 p.m. bus to take kids in the after school program home. When I mentioned how crowded the bus was she stated that it was not and that the capacity of the bus was 85 children. When I mentioned that every seat had three to a seat and that they were sitting so that the third child was half on a seat and half in the aisle she stated that this was acceptable. When I mentioned that to me this was not safe and seemed to be a safety concern she said that it was safe to sit half in the aisle. She said that three to a seat was acceptable and when I asked if this took into consideration the size of the child and asked if it would be possible to sit three large students to one seat she again said it was safe. (I don’t agree with her assessment.) If the bus were to have to stop suddenly how would the students who were sitting half in the aisle prevent themselves from being thrown from their seats? Personally I would not place my son in danger and if my son cannot sit in a seat properly I don’t believe it’s safe.

She also stated that there are no more busses or equipment and they were limited to one bus. She also stated that if the bus was over crowded that driver would have placed an all call for another bus to pick up the students. When I reminded her of her statement about no other busses being available she paused for a little and then said that they would have made every effort to get the students to school on time…”

I spoke to Connie Prasky, the driver trainer, today.

“I was instructed by the superintendent to continue running the bus as it is,” she said.

Prasky said the bus capacity was 84 and that it didn’t matter how big the students were.

“It is legal to run three to a seat,” she said. “I run high schoolers three to a seat. If they’re big, they usually have one cheek (on the seat), but it is legal.”

She said studies show that school buses are one of the safest modes of transportation, because of “compartmentalization” of the seats, which protects students. I asked if she was aware that compartmentalization requires students to be fully seated, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

She replied: “I have not read anything about that.”

Here’s what the NHTSA’s website says about the number of persons who can safely sit on a school bus seat:

“…The school bus manufacturers determine the maximum seating capacity of a school bus….based on sitting three small elementary school age persons per typical 39 inch school bus seat…School transportation providers generally determine the number of persons that they can safely fit into a school bus seat. Generally they fit three smaller elementary school age persons or two adult high school age persons into a typical 39 inch school bus seat.”

Quinn’s wife, Raquel Escobar, told me her son said he was partially leaning on his knee in the aisle on the way to school this morning. His leg “fell asleep” by the time he got to school and he could see the imprint of ridges on his knee from the floor, she said.

Superintendent Steven Lawrence says the district is acting within the law. He characterized the parents’ complaint as a “comfort concern” and said in an e-mail that the district would explore the possibility of providing a second bus after it finishes training a new batch of drivers.

Do you agree with the district’s practice of seating school buses at their maximum capacity?

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  • Doctor J

    What MDUSD is saying is just bogus as pointed out in the NHTSA regulations as to the compartmentalization. To confirm I asked a “Director of Transportation” in another district. Here is the reply: “So all buses are a little different but max is 84 at 3 to a seat. … For a field trip we aim for 2 to a seat for 7-12 grades bit can squish a few more small girls if needed It is illegal to block aisle with backpacks and kids must fit on the seat without their legs stuck out in aisle for emerg evacs. Sounds like a safety, discipline and PR nightmare. Strange but no legal capacity change for ages of kids but aisles must be clear.”
    So the Supt and MDUSD Transportation Dept are willing to put children at risk by violating the NHTSA regulations — and yet they claim that MDUSD is “Where kids come first”. How many times do we have to shout HYPOCRISY ? And the fact that people in the Transportation Dept and the Supt have not even read the NHTSA regulations shows how deficient the leadership is in not properly training its personnel. And Steven Lawrence, the next time you show up at Rotary, would you please read the Rotary Four Way test.

  • Doctor J

    I am appalled that none of the Board Trustees have stood up publicly to demand that Lawrence retract his ridiculous statement that obeying the NHTSA safety regulations is a “comfort concern” and instead make a statement that in MDUSD that the safety of children comes first. The NHTSA compartmentalization regulation is a subsitute for the seat belt requirement, and basically what Lawrence’s statement implies is that children should not wear seat belts for safety. If school superintendents are going to flaunt safety “seat belt requirements” or their subsitutes, and not put safety first, perhpas its time to just require a three point safety belt for each child on the bus. Trustees, if you don’t publicly separate yourself from Lawrence’s statement about ignoring the NHTSA safety requirement, that becomes a tacit endorsement of his ignoring the safety of the children to save a little money. God forbid there is an accident and a child is hurt, but if there is, such actions by the Supt and non-actions by the Trustees could subject them to punitive damages. We also need to stop the charade of Greg Rolen, the district lawyer, leading Transportation for $27,000 of year. If anyone should be on top of the NHTSA safety regulations its him. Let’s put safety of the children first.

  • Wait a minute

    You would expect a lawyer to READ the law.

    Knowing Rolen, if he has read the applicable laws/regulations here, he has done it to try and find a loophole.

  • Theresa Harrington

    The loophole is that regulators expect school districts to follow their recommendations.
    Legally, however, the district can fall back on the fact that it is under the maximum capacity.
    Although the CHP has the authority to enforce the regulations, it’s unclear if it has ever been asked to do so in the past. MDUSD could be a test case for the state.

  • Anon CVHS

    I sure wish parents like this would bring concerns to the various public meetings, and put Lawrence right on the spot. Come to a PAC meeting and when it is your turn, SAY WHAT IS ON YOUR MIND! My experience is that when he’s put on the spot in a one on one exchange, he listens, otherwise it is just too easy to dismiss the issue. Come on people. IF that were my kid, I would’ve driven WITH MY CHILD to the district office and sat in Lawrence’s office until he talked to me , so the admin’s could see their ADA wasting away sitting there! People , until this administration actually cares about listening to you, you need to get in their face! Stop being passive and making phone calls and calling/emailing Theresa! Do something youreslf!

  • Theresa Harrington

    I’m not sure the father was aware of the PAC meeting or knows that he can address the board directly. He works full-time and his wife doesn’t drive, so he was hoping the board would be responsive to his email. He didn’t email the Times until he became frustrated with the lack of response from the district.
    His wife, Raquel Escobar, also told me she was very frustrated by the fact that she received a phone call Wednesday night telling her there would be another bus, only to learn the next morning that wasn’t true. She felt she had been lied to.
    She said she had felt comforted that night, knowing her son would be safe. But when she found out the district reversed its decision and would not send another bus, she felt a sense of betrayal.
    Yet, the board’s draft strategic plan states that the district wants to build trust in the community.

  • Just J

    Anon CVHS is right. Unfortunatley you have to get in their face and stay there until they do something. This happens not only at the District level but also the school site level. The really bad part is when you are forced to do this they (adims.) take it personal and you are black listed after that. Again it is the adults that are supposedly incharge that make things so difficult. These people don’t care about our kids.

  • Theresa Harrington

    I have also heard that the $85 per semester is a financial hardship for some families.
    This year, the district received a $50,000 grant from 511 Contra Costa to help defray the cost. If the district doesn’t get that grant next year, families could be forced to take on an additional financial burden for this service.

  • Anon CVHS

    Well my kids are graduated and I no longer attend these meetings, so maybe they have changed, but I never saw anyone blacklisted. I saw results. Sometimes not always what people wanted, but at least it was addressed. I was there through McHenry and maybe things are different. I remember the days when appealing to the superintendent could also get your intradistrict transferred looked at too. Seems things have changed …? I just wanted to impart that in the past I have noticed the admin interested in situations that were brought directly in front of them in a public forum.

  • g

    Theresa, ask them how much they’re getting from the $479,754,954.00 the State divied up between all County School systems, to be distributed to individual school districts this year under THE PUPIL TRANSPORTATION PROGRAM, JULY 2011 CERTIFICATION
    FISCAL YEAR 2011-12. Then ask them why things like this, that the people should be aware of are titled and budgeted as “Other”, “Other”, “Other”.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Since the board discontinued webcasting its meetings, the public forum doesn’t reach as far as it used to.
    Parent Mike Mayo complained to the board Sept. 13 about special education bus problems, including students not being picked up at all. In response, Board President Gary Eberhart publicly asked for a report from staff about what was being done to remedy the situation.
    So far, the board has not received any report. Greg Rolen told me he was working on it, but didn’t know when he would present it to trustees.

  • Theresa Harrington

    In addition, Lawrence reported to the PAC that the district has an “undesignated” unrestricted fund balance of $30.8 million, which was $7.6 million more than anticipated.

  • Wait a minute

    So Greg Rolen is “working on it”?

    I’ll take that to mean that he is “working on” deflecting the blame from himself and downplaying the entire fiasco to protect himself.

    Its too bad that he doesn’t put the same effort into protecting the children and getting them to the right school on time.

    Its called Customer Service Greg.

  • g

    WAM, Right on. But, before he has time to do very much of any of the job he is being overpaid to do, he has found personal reasons to go through and find and delete perhaps dozens of public records that were once on MDUSD records and elsewhere on the internet. If you want to see them now you will have to, 1) know what to ask for and what’s missing, and 2) that’ll be 10cents per page thank you very much! (unless you had the foresight to save to your own document files;)