Activists warn school districts across country about Durham's unsafe practices

Report finds a high number of crashes, safety violations on company's buses

An image of the Woodmore bush crash and one of it's victims adorn signs as people wait to march. A march was held downtownon May 25, 2017 to remember the victims of the Woodmore Bus Crash and draw attention to Durham Transportation being retained as the contractor for the county's buses.

National Express Group, the parent company of Durham School Services, which is at the center of ongoing litigation since the deadly 2016 Woodmore Elementary School bus crash that left six children dead, has higher numbers of crashes and safety violations than its competitors, according to a national report released Friday.

Local activists are warning school districts across the country about Durham and its parent company, the private contractor that operates the buses for Hamilton County.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash

The group, Stand Up For School Bus Safety Coalition, formed in the months after the Woodmore crash, sent a letter to more than 250 school districts Friday citing the new report that found the company has a 25 percent higher crash rate than its two largest competitors.

The report, authored by Michael Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University, compared data from the nation's three largest bus operators - National Express Group (Durham's U.K.-based parent company), First Student and Student Transportation Inc.

National Express Group and its subsidiaries, including Durham, make it the second- largest bus contractor in the country, transporting more than 1 million students across 400 districts in 32 states, according to a news release.

The company's buses experienced a 25 percent higher rate of crashes per 1 mil- lion miles traveled compared to its competitors and a 41 percent higher number of federal safety violations, according to the report.

The report also found that the operator racked up three times as many violations as its competitors. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates and tracks school buses, citing violations for things such as bald tires or having a driver without a commercial driver's license.

"NEX and subsidiaries like Durham transport millions of our nation's children every day, and they have a duty to make safety a priority," Belzer said in a statement. "Yet from crash rates to violations of federal standards, the data shows that the company is falling behind at the expense of communities, and it faces serious risk factors that continue to exacerbate these safety concerns."

The coalition called upon Hamilton County Schools board members and officials in February to make changes in light of more than 75 unsafe incidents on Durham buses documented by the coalition. Members presented a list of recommendations to the board including establishing a district-run hotline for reporting problems on buses, conducting yearly trainings and drills for students who ride buses, establishing a process for dealing with misbehavior on buses and creating a community task force to review and monitor bus management and operations.

"Families and communities are suffering because of Durham's reckless approach to safety and maintenance," Jeffery Evans, minister and president of the Eastdale Neighborhood Association, said in a statement. "By joining together we can make a difference, ensure that our children are safe and make sure that Durham is held accountable wherever it does business. We hope more parents, educators, drivers, school board members and administrators join us in standing up to Durham."

The coalition also reportedly had a a meeting with Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson last month.

Durham's parent company defended its safety track record Friday.

"With respect to our safety track record, the fact is that we hold the highest safety rating awarded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and have one of the most robust safety programs in the student transportation industry," a spokesperson for NEX said in a statement. "We are the only provider outfitting our entire fleet with smart-camera technology and employing a centralized complaint management system. These tools, among others, make our drivers among the safest on the road, and are part of our ongoing commitment to getting our students to and from school safely every day."

On March 1, a jury found the driver of the bus, Johnthony Walker, guilty of criminally negligent homicide, along with a combination of lesser charges, in the Nov. 21, 2016, school bus crash. Walker faced 34 criminal charges and was accused of speeding while on the phone before he crashed the bus carrying 37 children into a tree. Durham also faces more than 30 personal-injury lawsuits in connection with the crash.

After the crash, the company committed to providing more school bus monitors and establishing a feedback system for employees, parents, school officials and community members to report incidents or problems on its buses.

"As parents, we put our trust in the hands of the school bus companies transporting our children to and from school every day, and Durham doesn't deserve our trust," reads a statement issued by pastor and Clergy Koinonia president J.R. Bridgeman, who has a son who rides a Hamilton County bus. "Even after the unimaginable tragedy in our community, Durham isn't putting the safety of our children first, even as it brings in record profits. I have a moral obligation to let other parents know about this dangerous company and make sure what happened in Chattanooga doesn't happen anywhere else, ever again."

The coalition previously launched a website to inform communities in other districts of Durham's safety record, as well as tools for parents to use when contacting school district leaders or reporting problems on buses. Coalition members will also present the report and their recommendations to the National School Boards Assocition Conference this month.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @memangrum.