Bus coalition says Durham drivers want to share safety concerns

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / David A. Duke, president and CEO of Durham School Services, speaks during an editorial board meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press about his company and the Woodmore Elementary school fatal bus crash.

Community organizers are worried the underlying causes of last year's Woodmore Elementary school bus crash are going unaddressed, even as the bus company involved delivers on some of its safety promises.

Durham School Services vowed to put 30 more monitors on its buses and create a complaint system for concerned parents after one of its drivers, Johnthony Walker, crashed a bus with 37 children aboard on Nov. 21.

Nearly a year later, Durham has provided monitors, adding to the 64 who already ride on special education routes, a spokeswoman said Friday. The private company still hasn't finalized its feedback management system, but that's rolling out in a few weeks and "will have a 1-800 number on the back of every bus," said Carina Noble, Durham spokeswoman.

A new safety coalition said it's been hearing a different story from worried Durham drivers. Members hope to convince members of the Hamilton County school board of their safety concerns, since they believe they're going unheard at the Illinois-based company.

"We've been talking to a lot of school bus drivers, and there's still a lot of safety issues on the buses," said Walt Westfield, a coalition member. "For instance, the extra monitors? It is not so. And a lot of the buses that have inner-city kids still have just a driver and no monitor."

But Noble said Durham's numbers speak for themselves and the company started recruiting additional monitors in December 2016. Some school board members said Friday they've made safety changes, but would listen to the new concerns. One member said the main issue she sees is ensuring riders know how to behave so drivers can focus on the road.

"We've been in constant contact with Durham ever since this happened," said District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman. "They have a number you can call now and file complaints. We've put monitors on the buses. We have video cameras on the front of the bus. We've given extra safety classes. We've really tried to do everything we can possibly do. The parents want kids safe, but so does the school board.

"We're very serious about this, and if there's something we're not doing, we want someone to tell us."

Michael Gilliland, coalition member and chairman of Chattanooga Organized for Action, said the bus drivers have written statements about their safety concerns but need to remain anonymous for now.

"Those coming up, there's no safety provisions to make sure they're protected in doing this," Gilliland said. "Durham is a multi-national corporation. This isn't the first time they've had complaints. And I would worry about workers' retaliation attempts."

Durham drivers in Florida, South Carolina and Memphis, Tenn., have cried foul on the company for failing to respond to work-condition complaints, disparate pay and punishing attempts to unionize. A few Chattanooga mothers whose children died in the 2016 crash said they no longer trusted the company earlier this year and successfully pushed for independent contractors, who own their buses and pay for gasoline and insurance, to take over Durham's routes for Woodmore Elementary. Durham has a team of 182 drivers for 171 routes and is in the process of hiring five more people, Noble said.

Westfield, who said he tried to call school board members and arrange a sitdown with the superintendent, believes everyone could come to an agreement with a meeting.

He and Gilliland said concerns have included broken windshield wipers on a rainy first day of school; drivers being ordered to operate a school bus when the check-engine light is on; assigning buses with reported problems to unsuspecting drivers; and holding a drive shaft together with duct tape. That shaft is responsible for transferring a lot of power, stress and torque as a vehicle makes cuts and turns.

"These are symptoms of the inability of workers to have any meaningful voice in their working conditions," Gilliland said. "And until they can do that, until workers can be a part of the process, the school board is ultimately going to have the responsibility of putting that in place.

"And until that happens, I think we're running a danger of really not addressing what caused this tragedy in the first place."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.