A report released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board sheds new light on the circumstances surrounding the Nov. 21, 2016, Woodmore Elementary School bus crash that killed six children and injured dozens more.
The federal agency found 10 complaints were made against the driver, Johnthony Walker, 25, in the months leading up to the crash, according to the report filed April 30. Parents and school officials claimed Walker was speeding or driving erratically on multiple occasions between Aug. 11, 2016, and Nov. 18, 2016.
Investigators noted that Durham School Services was unaware of some of the complaints made concerning Walker.
"[Durham] did not have a systemic [sic] method for receiving, tracking, or investigating complaints against drivers. Consequently, the carrier was unaware of many of the complaints; many of the complaints were not documented in the driver's personnel file," the report states.
Durham implemented an interim driver monitoring program in Hamilton County the month after the crash, saying the new program would collect information in a central database to ensure complaints are addressed. Company officials also described to authorities a long-term plan to use another system that would allow complainants to provide greater detail about specific incidents.
The report also shows Walker submitted multiple student discipline referrals to school administrators in the month before the crash and staff witnessed him arguing with a student on one occasion. In one incident, on Nov. 9, Walker submitted a list of students for discipline referral, complaining they were riding the bus facing rearward, standing and engaging in "horseplay" while the bus was in motion.
Walker submitted a list of 10 students the following day which stated the students were again standing while the bus was in motion. A Hamilton County Department of Education transportation supervisor sent an email to the school principal and a Durham terminal manager stating the driver had legitimate concerns, but added, "[H]e can't be turning in 10 referrals in a day."
Video evidence in the report also supports prosecutors' claims Walker was traveling more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit at the time of the crash. Investigators pulled footage from an internal recording system to gauge the speed of the bus by measuring how quickly it passed objects such as fire hydrants and signs seen through the windows.
That same video also shows the bus passed a white vehicle traveling in the opposite direction on the road just seconds before the crash. Walker said during court proceedings that an oncoming vehicle caused him to swerve off the road.
"Once the bus was past the second vehicle, it yawed abruptly to the left, subsequently rolling over to the right," the report states. "Less than one second after the two vehicles were at the same location along the road, the video ended."
Investigators also noted they spoke with the terminal manager for Durham in Chattanooga who was responsible for reviewing investigation of complaints against drivers, including one submitted about Walker on Nov. 16 alleging he was swerving the bus intentionally to throw students out of their seats. The manager said he had begun reviewing video of the incident, but didn't finish before the crash.
"Several portions of the video show children falling out of their seats and into the aisles as the bus appears to sway side to side," the report states. "In addition, during the portions of the video that children are falling out of their seats, the audio contains sounds of children yelling and of apparent engine acceleration noises."
Walker was ultimately found guilty on six counts of criminally negligent homicide, seven counts of assault and 11 counts of reckless aggravated assault at the conclusion of his trial in February 2018 and sentenced to four years in prison.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.