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Motorists pass a collection of teddy bears, mementos, and balloons placed at the site of a fatal school bus crash on Talley Road on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The makeshift memorial to victims of the Monday crash, which killed 6 Woodmore Elementary students and injured dozens more, has grown since the road was reopened Tuesday.

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In the wake of the fatal bus crash, Chattanooga stands strong

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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Three Chattanooga Police Officers, who requested that their names not be used but said that they were the first three officers to arrive on scene, bring balloons and a stuffed animal to leave at the site of a fatal school bus crash on Talley Road on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The makeshift memorial to victims of the Monday crash, which killed 5 Woodmore Elementary students and injured dozens more, has grown since the road was reopened Tuesday.
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David Cook

If your child's bus driver was driving recklessly and erratically, what would you do?

Who would you call?

Email?

Or confront?

Most importantly, after doing all that, would anything change?

Two months before the November bus crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary schoolchildren, the warnings began. An angry mother wrote Woodmore principals, claiming the driver of bus No. 366 slammed on his brakes and cussed kids. In October — incidentally, Hamilton County Schools' character trait of the month was responsibility — more warnings followed, from teachers, students, Woodmore administrators.

"It fills [sic] like the bus is going to flip over," one student told Woodmore adults.

Hamilton County Schools officials have 30 pages of complaints and correspondence about the driver, Johnthony Walker.

Yet he continued to drive.

Could the school system have done more to pressure bus contractor Durham to remove Walker?

With each warning, Woodmore administrators passed on complaints to the education department's transportation officials. Five days before the crash, the Woodmore principal once more emailed the director of transportation for Hamilton County Schools.

"Six students reported that the bus driver was swerving and purposely trying to cause them to fall today," the email said.

Why, still, was nothing done to intervene quickly?

Or has such power been lost in layers of bureaucracy? By outsourcing the bus contract to Durham School Services, did the school system also outsource the ability and authority to act upon warnings?

It's 630 miles from Talley Road to Durham headquarters in Warrenville, Ill. Would a concerned parent need to travel that far to see action taken? (Or even significantly farther: Durham's parent company is in Britain.)

Or, perhaps, he or she only need travel the few miles down the road to the schools' central office.

Remember those 30 pages of complaints and correspondence? Thursday, Durham officials said they had received six complaints from Hamilton County officials.

Six.

And only two mentioned speeding.

Somewhere in the chain of command, something broke. Somewhere, the warnings fell flat.

And we are reminded again — in a way eerily reminiscent of the Ooltewah assault — that when our children are in danger, someone must step forward and act. Someone must take responsibility.

Such incidents trouble us as parents, but also as citizens.

Exactly how much power do we have to change circumstances around us?

How many layers and layers of bureaucracy and paperwork policy must we bore through to actually have something done?

Apparently, these were questions for Walker as well.

Records show he had expressed continued frustration over behavior on the bus. Kids were cursing. Not sitting correctly in their seats. Standing in the aisles. He had filed multiple referrals, or complaints, about students' behavior on the bus. One terrible day — Nov. 10 — he filed 10 referrals about students on his bus.

Did no one help him?

Was his reckless driving only a perverse form of behavior control?

Was his reckless driving only a horrifically misplaced attempt at discipline?

Such questions beget even more questions: Why do we as a society load upon bus drivers the double burden of safely piloting multiton vehicles while also keeping discipline among dozens of kids? (Unending praise and thankfulness to all the bus drivers who gracefully can.)

Do we even need school buses at all? Could we create a hybrid service with CARTA, which would allow us to move school start times from the archaic and absurd to the reasonable and healthy, while also saving millions upon millions of dollars?

(Don't laugh. One local expert, Dr. Roger Thompson, has been saying for years it could be done.)

In the days to come, there should be a robust and sober school board discussion about responsibility, Durham's contract and the entire bus system. But at the heart of that discussion, one question remains:

Could this happen again?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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