School bus driver may have violated policy in child's death

Current policies required driver to stop bus, which was moving at time of accident

December 29, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore school bus driver might have violated policy after failing to stop when a 6-year-old special-needs student tried to exit through the front door — and ultimately fell to his death from the back of the still-moving bus.

Drivers are trained to stop a bus whenever a student is disruptive or not seated, said Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for city schools. That policy isn't written in the school system's transportation manual, but it will be added in January, he said.

The student, Jeremy Jennings Jr., displayed behavior that would warrant the school bus to pull over, according to police reports of the Dec. 8 accident. Jeremy got out of his seat and began an altercation with another child, according to Lt. Rob McCullough, spokesman for Baltimore County police.

One of the two adult aides on the bus broke up the altercation, and Jeremy tried unsuccessfully to leave from the front door. He then ran to the back of the bus, opened the rear door and fell onto the road, McCullough said.

Scroggins and school officials declined to comment specifically on the accident because it is still under investigation by police. But Scroggins said that school bus drivers, including those who work for contractors, are trained to stop a bus any time a student is out of his or her seat, engaged in an altercation or causing a disruption.

After stopping the vehicle amid a disturbance, school bus personnel are also instructed to contact police and their dispatcher whenever activity would interfere with or prevent the safe operation of the bus, school officials said.

City school officials say they will review protocols for transporting special-education students.

Jeremy was being taken to his West Baltimore home from the Villa Maria at St. Vincent's, a Catholic special-education school in Timonium. The bus was traveling at Pot Spring and Girdwood roads when the accident occurred. Baltimore County paramedics responded and found the injured boy, who died two days later.

The boy's mother, Lisa Avery, says she plans to file a lawsuit. "I still need answers," Avery said. "I still only have bits and pieces."

The bus driver, who worked for a contractor, M R Hopkins Transportation Inc., had his license disqualified, school officials said. The two adult aides who were on the bus and also worked for M R Hopkins have had their certifications suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. Their names have not been released.

M R Hopkins has been contracting with the city for more than a decade, and school officials said the company also trained bus personnel in the school system's policies and procedures.

Repeated calls to M R Hopkins since the accident have not been returned. The company is still providing transportation for city students.

Jeremy's death has spurred questions from special-education experts and parents of city students about school system transportation training and policies, and whether they need to be altered to better accommodate students whose disruptive behavior can result in emergencies or tragedies.

"This is not something that should be taken lightly, but it's something to think about from the perspective of, the bus is usually an unstructured time for kids, a place for emotion to flare," said Ellen A. Callegary, founding partner of the Baltimore law firm of Callegary & Steedman P.A., which focuses on special education, disability and family law issues.

"Children with complex disabilities can sometimes do things you're surprised about," Callegary said. "One of the things you have to always be thinking about is safety."

While police are still investigating the details leading up to the accident, Jeremy's family is awaiting a videotape from the bus that may answer questions about whether other protocols were violated. Police are treating the videotape as evidence, so it has not been released.

"That will tell me everything," Avery said.

The videotape may show where the two bus aides were sitting as Jeremy ran up the aisle. One of the aides was assigned to one student, and another was responsible for Jeremy and three other students.

"That one aide has enormous responsibilities," Callegary said. "But you would think the aide would know how to deal with the kids."

According to the contract between city schools and M R Hopkins, bus aides are to sit in a seat that "offers the best view of all student passengers, a position that is ordinarily in the back of the bus. However, some school system policies also say that the best vantage points for bus aides to intervene in disruptive behavior is being seated midway down the bus."

Callegary pointed out, however, the complexities of caring for special-needs students, saying their strength and speed can be erratic and unmanageable.

"It is not surprising to me when incidents occur on the bus, because even with multiple aides, kids just do stuff," she said. "If both of them were behind him, he could zip quickly."

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