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Wheels of Misfortune

by Christina Paciolla
Recent incidents have parents and school districts concerned, focused on bus safety.

No matter how closely involved you are in your child’s life, nearly every single day there comes a time when you need to place their care in the hands of others. A babysitter, a daycare worker, a teacher—people that are trusted to ensure the well-being of our youth.

Twice a day, children all across South Jersey are transported to school and back via bus.

Many parents know nothing of the drivers behind the wheel and few would think to question their credentials. However, an unfortunate string of recent accidents, including one that left an 11-year-old girl dead, has some parents questioning what safety measures are being instituted to protect their kids.

In February, the unthinkable happened when an accident involving an elementary school bus in the tiny Burlington County town of Chesterfield collided with a dump truck, killing Isabelle Tezsla and injuring 17 others. Tezsla’s triplet sisters were among those in critical condition. Reportedly, all the students on the bus were wearing their seatbelts.

School districts can make sure drivers are properly licensed, that buses are inspected and training is done periodically, but short of having a school official riding shotgun, it’s difficult to determine how much more they could do to monitor the safety of children. According to Marie Reynolds, spokeswoman for Mount Laurel Township Schools, there isn’t much. The district operates on a four-tiered busing system. Sixty-six buses go out across 22 square miles, four times a day. At any given time, there are dozens of buses on the roads, carrying more than 4,000 students. Reynolds says all buses have seatbelts and the district mandates they be used. Their 54 bus drivers meet in the transportation office before their routes, so they are seen daily, Reynolds says.

“There’s observation,” she adds. “There are also parents at all the stops. They see the driver; they know if there is something going on.”

That “something going on” wasn’t spotted until students noticed erratic driving on a Westampton school bus transporting middle school students home last November. Kids on the bus driven by Carol Crockett, of Shamong, were texting and calling their parents, suspecting the driver was intoxicated as she swerved repeatedly and began to nod off.

According to reports, a text message from one of the 25 students on the bus read, “Mommy I think our bus driver is drunk she’s not driving right.”

The police were alerted and when they located Crockett, she was alleged to have had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit. She was arrested and charged with 25 counts of driving under the influence with a minor, driving under the influence on school property, endangering the welfare of a child and disorderly conduct.

John Tieman, the 66-year-old bus driver in Chesterfield, and 38-year-old Michael Caporale, the dump truck driver, could face their own criminal charges for their role in the February crash.

Joel Bewley, spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, says both Tieman and Caporale tested negative for drugs and alcohol. However, the investigation is ongoing while the county awaits for the National Transportation Safety Board to issue its final report. In the meantime, the parents of the Tezsla triplets have filed a lawsuit against both drivers and their respective employers, claiming negligence in the death and injury of their daughters.

In the days following the accident, parents and students were not the only ones concerned. Bus drivers themselves were, too.

“That was a very sobering bit of news,” says bus driver Allan Giordano, who has been driving with the Mount Laurel School District for 13 years. “We have children’s lives in our hands so it’s on our minds at all times—the safety of our children.”

Giordano says there are ongoing training and safety seminars for drivers. Sometimes it’s presented by the state, sometimes by the individual school districts. After the Chesterfield accident, Giordano noticed students on his bus were a lot more attentive and more compliant with rules.

“Every time you get in your bus, you check it out,” he says. “You’re very aware of what is around you, because that’s the job.”

An extra safety precaution for bus drivers is a video monitoring device like the ones on all 84 school buses in the Voorhees School District, which records behavior of students and drivers. “It’s for the driver’s protection and for the students’ protection,” says Frank DeBerendinis, assistant superintendent.

Voorhees schools use an outside bus company and rely on random checks to ensure the safety of the students. On occasion, DeBerendinis follows a bus with the district’s transportation director.

“We’ll go to the bus stops and hold in-district inspections,” he says. “We also rely heavily on our police officers.”

Following the Chesterfield accident, DeBerendinis says their motto was repeated even more so.

“Safety first,” he recites. “Don’t rush from here to there. Make sure there are parents there to accept their kids. We called every bus company after that and asked them to be careful, stop, take their time. That’s the most important thing.”

Of course, accidents are just that—an accident. There is no intent, and the fault doesn’t necessarily lie with the school bus driver. Such was the case in March when a SUV collided with a bus in National Park. The driver of the Chevy Blazer was cited for running a red light before plowing into the elementary school bus carrying third- and fourth-graders from West Deptford. No major injuries were reported.

For the record, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that traveling by school bus is seven times safer than by car or truck.

In Chesterfield, the driver was only on the job for three weeks. His testimony revealed he stopped at the stop sign and pulled slightly ahead to get a clear view of oncoming traffic, claiming he never saw the dump truck. The driver proved to have all his licensing—an approval process that can be very lengthy.

There’s fingerprinting, criminal history checks, driving record checks, a physical, drug testing, and a commercial driver’s license needed. In some cases, there’s even more required.

According to Reynolds in Mount Laurel, their drivers have to go through four tests before they can drive buses for the district. Then, they train for 40 hours with their in-house trainer, followed by a road test.

And turnover is low, says Reynolds. “It’s hard to get drivers because this process is so stringent,” she says.

Jan Giel, community relations coordinator for Washington Township schools, says their district provides driver-training courses. “If a driver applies for a position, and has not gone through our program, our driver trainer takes them out for a road test,” Giel says. There’s also “vigorous drilling from the front of the bus to the rear, along with safety procedures.”

School districts also hold drills for fire and accident safety, and act out scenarios such as an impact to the front of the vehicle, side or back. “They make it complicated,” Reynolds says, “and make drivers think about how they would handle it.”

In Washington Township, when drivers are learning their routes, they are given literature on specifics of bus driving that far exceed what to do in accidents or how to deal with unruly children. They also learn where small students hide on buses, how to check the bus, how to load and unload students properly, and how to steer during inclement weather.

No matter how much preparation goes into better informing drivers and students, it doesn’t make these in­stances any less unnerving, according to a veteran driver like Giordano.

“As much as you want to be prepared for something like that, there’s shock involved. It’s pretty chilling.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May, 2012).
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