by Jennifer Sika
On the afternoon of November 21, 2016, school bus №366 carrying 37 children from Woodmore Elementary School, swerved off a Chattanooga road. The crash killed 6 children and injured dozens more. The driver, Johnthony Walker, faces charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving charges. A statement from Walker’s attorney, “Mr. Walker’s family is also devastated by this tragedy. Mr. Walker has been devastated,
We’re hopeful that the investigation can conclude quickly and we have a better understanding of what occurred.”
The horrible crash sheds light on very real and difficult internal problems within Durham School Services — the company that Walker worked for as a contracted employee.
Walt Westfield a Teamsters organizer says, “Durham School Services does not have enough drivers for the amount of student drop offs. Drivers may be in route and Durham may radio that they have another stop or two added in the route but the driver is still required to be at the locations at the same time.”
Several bus drivers reached out to Westfield and the Teamsters Union requesting help in organizing a campaign to support drivers. They are campaigning for safer conditions to transport Hamilton County children and for more support from the company which employs them.
“We are hoping to bring awareness to the Parents, Community and the School Board that there are a lot of safety issues that the drivers want to bring to their attention. The only way that the drivers can get some relief is to bring these issues to the public. We feel that this is the only way that Durham School Service is going to address the safety and maintenance issues on the buses.
Reported safety and maintenance issues range from missing windshield wipers to duct tape repairs.” Westfield expands, “The first day of this school year it was raining and bus # 405’s windshield wipers did not work, water leaked through windows. Some of the safety strobe lights do not work, some buses go out with check engine light on, bad tires, and wiring hanging from panels.”
“There are difficulties getting the company to take any of the service requests seriously. When drivers complain to Durham School Services about these issues they are told “to drive and they will fix the problems later. When drivers put a bus out of service, it has been known that another driver may get that bus without the proper work completed,” says Westfield.
Drivers want to make the buses safe for everyone, but in order to do that they need representation and support from the school board and community. Holding Durham School Services accountable is important in ensuring safety for Hamilton County children. Drivers plan to speak to the Hamilton County Board of Education on October 19th @ 5:30 pm