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Staff file photo by Doug Strickland / A wrecker removes the school bus from the scene of a crash on Talley Road last month.

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Fatal school bus crash

It seems that Hamilton County school administrators and the private company that they contract with for bus services are blaming one another for failures that may have contributed to the horrific accident on Nov. 21, killing six elementary school children.

David Duke, the CEO of Durham School Services, a private company that provides the majority of the county's buses, met with Times Free Press editors and reporters Thursday to announce that the company is now spending several million dollars on enhanced safety measures, including the new hires of 30 bus monitors locally, the installation of smart cameras on all the buses and an improved system to track complaints against drivers.

Law enforcement authorities have said the bus driver, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, was speeding when he lost control on the narrow, windy Talley Road. The bus rolled on its side and the top wrapped around a tree. Walker, who also worked a 12-hour night shift at Amazon a few days a week, faces six charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.

But Duke also said the bus company had received only six of the dozen or so complaints that school officials say were made. All of those six were in emails and only two included reports of speeding. He said the company had not received complaints that Walker cursed students, said he didn't care about the students or slammed on the brakes to make them fall out of seats.

"We can only act on what we know and what's before us," Duke said, defending the company's decision to allow Walker to continue driving the bus. He said all of the issues the company did know of before the accident — except a minor one made just days before — had been addressed. None of the things in the complaints Durham had seen would have been cause for termination, Duke said.

Hamilton County Schools, however, last week released more than 30 pages of complaints and correspondence about Walker and his driving, including handwritten letters from a parent and two students. According to records, district Transportation Director Ben Coulter talked with Durham about the complaints on Nov. 16 and 18. Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said complaints were forwarded to Coulter, who shared them with Durham.

There's more than enough blame to pass around for what appears to have a tragic breakdown in communication between the school system and bus contractor, and time will tell if the new electronic complaint tracking system will help.

But perhaps most encouraging about Durham's improvements was the more human element: 30 new bus monitors — real people to watch the actions of drivers and students.

Of course, it begs the question here of why a brand new, 24-year-old bus driver who in less than three months already had a string of complaints reported to the district didn't also already have a monitor assigned to ride with him. In fact, Walker had complained about unruly students on the bus.

According to Duke, either the school system or Durham or the two working together could have assigned a monitor.

Clearly, neither one did.

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