By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
The arrest of Kathy Legrand on October 16 for suspicion of driving a Leander ISD school bus while intoxicated after Legrand ran over a mailbox shocked many in Four Points. There have been other bus accidents so far this year as well, but LISD wants to reassure parents that district buses continue to be safe for students.
Including the Legrand arrest, school buses in Four Points have had, “four accidents and four incidents involving buses since the beginning of the school year,” according to numbers released in response to a Public Information Request filed by the Four Points News.
In addition to the Legrand accident and subsequent DWI charge, another accident involved a driver hitting a pizza delivery vehicle in Steiner Ranch, and another a bus rear-ending a student’s vehicle near Vandegrift High School.
“Incidents” include events that do not require a police report to be filed.
Thorough hiring process
The district has strict rules and hiring procedures in place to promote bus safety.
New hires must undergo a 20-step process, which includes applications, interviews, fingerprinting and over 40 hours of training time behind the wheel of a bus.
The district uses both full-time and on-call drivers.
Demand remains higher than supply. Veronica Soper, LISD spokesperson, said that, “We have had (a shortage of drivers) for awhile… it’s very competitive and it’s a challenge recruiting qualified drivers. But it’s not a massive shortage. We’re just short of drivers. It’s not uncommon.”
Bus drivers are LISD employees and the buses are owned by the District, but a private company “is responsible for all the training, all the legal requirements, all of the operational logistics of the busing operation… the operations management,” Sopher said.
Operations management includes things like scheduling, running the routes, making sure that state and federal laws are being implemented, that training materials are current, and so on.
There has been new leadership in recent weeks at the private company with which the district contracts. The State of Texas contracts out this service like they do food service in school cafeterias.
District: No need to change policies
Rules and requirements to be a school bus driver are extensive.
“The district is obligated to test 50 percent of our CDL drivers each year through a random selection administered by the independent (Department of Transportation) drug testing service,” explained Sopher. “And so that’s all of our CDL drivers. That includes bus drivers, warehouse drivers, anyone who holds that kind of license, including possibly some employees, like coaches.”
Legrand, for example, was last tested February 13, 2014 and tested negative.
Drivers are tested for the following substances: amphetamines, opiates, phencyclidine, cocaine and marijuana in addition to alcohol.
Even positive tests don’t necessarily result in employee termination or discipline, since “nine times out of ten, as I understand it, it’s issues that (drivers) have had with other medications… prescribed medications,” Sopher clarified.
Officials said the district sees no need to review or change these policies.
Additional measures in place
LISD does not track their buses via GPS but they do use video monitoring in all their buses. These are not live video feeds, though. “It’s not in real time. We’ll go back and review videos, like if a parent has a complaint,” or if someone observes a bus breaking traffic laws.
Retraining is offered to some drivers after an accident, “to support review, development and improvement of safe driving skills specifically related to the accident,” according to the 2014 LISD Driver’s Handbook.
This, of course, depends on the severity and handling of an accident. Sopher gave the example that, “If you (a bus driver) hit a mailbox and you immediately report it and follow all the processes and procedures as you were trained to do, then your supervisors will follow the course that’s in the manual.”
However, “If there’s concerns about you not reporting incidents, if you are deliberately violating policy, not forthcoming… that’s something that the supervisors have to consider when they’re talking about what to do…. It has to be taken on a case-by-case basis depending on the circumstances,” Sopher said.
Commercial driving laws do not allow the use of technology except under very limited circumstances. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s website, all texting is forbidden, and calls can only be made in hands-free mode and only if using voice commands or pushing a maximum of one button.
Buses are filled well within legal capacity limits. LISD uses primarily 77 passenger buses and the average number of students riding on buses to all Four Points schools is between 41 to 44 students.
A community concern
Bus safety is not only in the hands of drivers. The public also plays a role.
As Sopher pointed out, “One of the things that we always tell the community is to respect the traffic signals, respect the speed of the buses. Remember when the stop sign comes out of the bus for loading and unloading to stop your vehicle so that students can safely get on and off the bus. Really, just respecting the space and speed of the bus.”
When asked if the district wants the public to report any bus issues they may personally observe, Sopher was unequivocal. “Absolutely. Student safety is our number one priority and if anyone sees anywhere — on a campus, on a bus, out on a field trip, at a ball field — if there is any concern for student safety at any time, we ask people to immediately notify the district.”
The best way to do so is to contact the LISD Transportation Department at (512) 570-0700 or to call your local school campus.