DRIVER SAYS BUSES ARE UNSAFE, SCHOOL OFFICIALS SAY IT'S NOT TRUE
Brookings-Harbor School District bus driver Dave Aubin is convinced that several buses are unsafe and has the evidence to prove it.
He also accuses some of his fellow bus drivers of speeding and reckless driving.
But local and state school officials, Aubins supervisor and even the districts insurance representative say his charges are not true.
Fearing for students lives, Aubin has reported his suspicions to his supervisor, the police, school officials and the Oregon Department of Education.
He also contacted The Pilot, several other newspapers and a Medford television news station.
On March 17, he filed a report with the Brookings Police Department stating the school districts bus drivers are not performing pre-trip inspections and possibly endangering students lives. Police confirmed the report.
I had to do something to nudge this along, Aubin said.
Before that, on Feb. 12, Aubin said he sat in a ditch across from the districts bus garage before dawn, videotaping the drivers actions.
Some of the drivers just start up their buses and go, and its endangering the lives of our children, Aubin told The Pilot.
If they were hauling trash cans and not children, I would care less.
Aubin said he voiced his concerns to his supervisor, but nothing was ever done.
I couldnt wait any longer, he said. I couldnt wait until the brakes on a bus fail and goes flying off Gardner Ridge.
Brookings-Harbor School District Superintendent Paul Prevenas said, We are and always have been concerned about the safety of our students on campus and in the school buses.
We have a very modern bus fleet. Im proud of the condition theyre in, he said. And we have an extremely conscientious group of bus drivers.
Deborah Lincoln, Director of Pupil Transportation for the Oregon Department of Education in Salem, said two of her employees inspected the districts buses on Feb. 27.
Aubin claimed the inspections were spurred by his complaints to Lincoln, but she said the inspections were part of the departments regularly scheduled visits to the South Coast. The same inspectors also checked buses in Gold Beach and Port Orford, Lincoln said.
As for the buses at Brookings-Harbor School District, Lincoln said, We found nothing shocking. Just the typical things we find when inspecting buses at school districts throughout the state.
Lincoln said maintanence records kept by the district showed that several buses had gone more than a year on parts of the required annual inspection.
In the end, the inspectors red flagged five of districts 20 buses, mostly for minor problems, she said.
Those buses were temporarily removed from service so items such as brake adjustments could be made, or inoperative tail lights could be replaced. The states inspection report will be sent to Prevenas sometime next week, Lincoln said.
School district Transportation Supervisor Neil Walker on Thursday said the red flagged buses were out of service anywhere from five minutes to an hour, depending on what repairs needed to be done.
Most of the repairs were done the same day the inspectors were still here, Walker said.
On one bus, the state inspectors had found what they thought may have been a faulty brake. But upon further investigation by the districts full-time mechanic, that was not the case, Walker said. It just needed adjusting, he said.
The inspectors also found a leaky air hose on one bus, something Walker said the bus driver should have caught during a daily inspection.
That driver wasnt doing a complete job, so I trained that driver on how to do better pre-trip inspections, Walker said.
The state inspection also found that one bus driver had an expired first aid card, as did several coaches who drive athletes to games, Lincoln said.
Walker said his driver did not work for several days until he received training.
Overall, he said the drivers do a good job on keeping up on the condition of their buses.
Ive got a great team of drivers, he said. We have good buses. The districts has been buying a new one every year.
Gerald Ross, the school districts insurance agent, said the school has an impeccable record.
Ross said a representative of the districts insurance company, Great American Insurance, checks the districts buses and other vehicles annually and has never found any major problems.
Ive been doing the districts insurance for some 35 years and I can tell you theres nothing at all to Mr. Aubins claims, he said.
Prevenas said he received on Monday a letter from Aubin detailing his concerns. He hadnt seen Aubins videotape yet.
Now that Mr. Aubin has filed an official complaint, I will certainly investigate it, Prevenas said.
Before doing that, however, Prevenas said he needs more information from Aubin such as dates, times and places.
I have to be fair to everyone. I cant just rush to judgment based on what one person says, Prevenas said. First, I need to gather information, do an investigation and review the facts.
Aubin says he isnt alone in his concerns. Several other bus drivers feel the same way I do, he said.
The Pilot contacted three of these bus drivers, but none wanted to speak on the record.
Other drivers, however, had nothing but good things to say about the safety of the buses and the drivers abilities.
Ive been here for 17 years and the buses are safer than theyve ever been, said senior driver Dick Hadley. If anything goes wrong it gets fixed immediately. New drivers get better training than ever before.
Driver Kathy Appel, who said she has been driving buses for 13 years, said The training and testing has been really advanced for the last four or five years.
She added, We cant always be perfect, Were like any other driver on the road, but we do a good job. To my knowledge we havent had any major accidents or citations for a long time.
Walker said most of the buses are checked by drivers each morning, sometimes while the bus is in the garage bay and sometimes outside the garage, he said.
The drivers are also required to fill out a daily form in which they check off the various items they have inspected on the bus that day.
The drivers must conduct air brake checks the most important thing, Walker said.
The drivers are also required to make sure all exterior lights and safety signals are working, the seats are securely attached, and doors and emergency exits are operational.
The drivers are supposed to visually check the engine, looking for leaks, loose hoses and belts. Drivers check the air pressure in tires by tapping them with a bat, Walker said.
Aubin says his videotape shows that some drivers dont take enough time to inspect everything they should. A full pre-trip inspection should take about 15 to 20 minutes, he said.
Aubin has sent copies of the videotape, along with documented information, to Lincoln, School Board Member Brian Larrson, and The Pilot.
Upon reviewing the videotape, it appeared that most drivers walked around the bus, doing a visual inspection. Some walked up and down inside the bus, although it was hard to see exactly what they were doing. One driver appeared only to start the bus engine, walk around the vehicle and then get behind the wheel and leave.
The tape, however, does not show whether the drivers stopped their buses in the parking lot or elsewhere for additional inspections. Aubin said they just drove away.
Aubin said the drivers should do a pre-trip inspection every morning before leaving. But Lincoln said state law requires bus drivers to do it once a day, not specifically in the morning, she said.
As for Aubins complaints about the several drivers, Walker said the initial training of new drivers is very extensive.
Walker said he conducts mandatory in-service training for all drivers once a month on various safety and vehicle issues. He encourages drivers to ask questions and voice concerns.
Walker said he has talked with any drivers that Aubin has complained to him about.
Whether its valid or not I have responded to those complaints by talking with the driver and letting him or her know about the complaint, Walker said.
He added that those meetings are private, so Aubin may not be aware that his complaints have been addressed.
Walker also said that part of Aubins motives may be personal. We were friends. I had him as a trainer and I had him a train other drivers, but then he didnt like the results of my investigations and it became personal.
Aubin felt the same about Walker, saying he was being retaliated against for speaking out about bus safety.
(Walker) has threatened me with insubordination by e-mail because I protected a student on my bus. Accused me of violating school policy and regulations, and changing bus routes without notice, Aubin said.
He emphasized that This is not about me, its about the kids and their safety.
Prevenas said he was aware the animosity between Aubin and Walker, but couldnt divulge details because he is prohibited by law from talking about personnel issues. Walker said Aubin was on disability leave up until Feb. 14 and hasnt returned to work yet.
Aubin said he has been too stressed out about the situation to return to work.
He has been a full-time bus driver for the district more than a year. Before that, he was a substitute driver, Prevenas said.
Aubin said he became interested in the transportation business after recovering from a 1993 neck injury. He said he attended every school the U.S. Department of Transportation provides. He also was trained by the Department of Motor Vehicles as a commercial driver examiner, he said.
Aubin said he responded to an ad for a transportation supervisor at Brookings-Harbor School District in 1998, but discovered the job had already gone to Walker.
A few months later, Aubin said Walker hired him as a substitute driver.
Since then, Aubin claims the bad driving habits of some bus drivers has resulted in several bus accidents, increased behavior problems and speeding complaints by residents. He also said people have complained to him about speeding busses in school zones and nearly running over students.
Prevenas, however, said he has heard of no such complaints from other people and there have been no major bus accidents or near misses.
In my four or five years here there have been no students injured in bus accidents, and we expect to keep that track record indefinitely, Prevenas said.
He said the district investigates several complaints about school buses or drivers every year.
We do two or three full-blown investigations a year, and (Aubins) will probably be one of those, he said.
Brookings Police Officer Barbara Palicki said the department has not received any citizen reports of speeding buses lately.
On the whole, you have to give the bus drivers credit. This is not an easy area to drive in, especially on North bank Chetco River Road, Palicki said.
When police do receive a complaint, an officer usually pays the bus supervisor a courtesy call and informs him of the complaint, she said.