DOE Insular Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry, below, listens to GBS parents’ concerns after a school bus with 15 students hit a guard rail, above, on Centerline Road.
Adult monitors are needed on school buses, parents told Department of Education officials last week.
Eight parents of Guy Benjamin School students who were on a school bus which crashed into a guard rail on Centerline Road met with DOE’s Insular Superintendent for the St. Thomas/St. John District Jeanette Smith-Barry on Tuesday morning, April 10, at the Coral Bay elementary school.
The school bus was traveling to Cruz Bay from GBS around 3:30 p.m. on April 4 when it struck a portion of a guardrail on Centerline Road between Upper Carolina and Ajax Peak.
Although none of the 15 students on board the bus suffered severe injuries, parents were not pleased with how officials responded in the wake of the accident.
The bus driver, whose name was not available last week other than being referred to as “Junior,” did not call 911 and transferred all of the students from his bus to a second bus before authorities arrived on the scene.
The buses are owned and operated by Varlack Ventures, which is contracted by DOE.
It appeared last week that the bus driver called the V.I. Police Department’s Leander Jurgen Command in Cruz Bay and reported that there were no injuries.
The driver was not in a position to make that determination, but the report of no injuries kept Emergency Medical Services from responding to the accident. St. John Rescue, which is dispatched by EMS, was also kept from responding with the report of no injuries.
Instead of waiting for officials who were capable of making a determination about injured students, some of whom were as young as kindergarten age, to arrive at the scene, the bus driver transferred all of the students to a second bus.
Several students complained of aching necks and bruised arms and shoulders, but they were told to get on the second bus, according to one GBS parent.
The second bus transported the GBS students to Cruz Bay, where students disembarked and shared news of the accident with their parents. Several parents took their children straight to Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center, but not all parents heard the news right away.
“The biggest thing is that the children were allowed to leave the scene on another bus without their parents being notified,” said Smith-Barry. “That is a serious, serious thing. Those children were not to be moved. You don’t just pick up and leave an accident.”
“I was very upset that the driver of another bus just dropped them off,” she said. “That is unacceptable and I have communicated that to the bus company. All of those children needed to be taken to the clinic and evaluated.”
In addition to not informing the proper authorities about the accident, the bus driver didn’t inform GBS or DOE officials either.
A parent informed Julius E. Sprauve School principal Dionne Wells, the former principal at GBS, about the accident and it was Wells who reported the incident to DOE, according to Smith-Barry.
In the wake of the accident, DOE officials attempted to contact all parents in order to have their children checked out at MKSCHC. DOE officials, however, didn’t have correct contact information and as of last week, had not contacted all parents.
The parents who were contacted were asked to meet at GBS on Tuesday morning to meet with Smith-Barry who was unable to attend a scheduled PTO meeting at the school that night.
Instead of the evening meeting, about eight parents, several of whom were forced to leave their jobs for several hours, met with Smith-Barry, Deputy Superintendent Joseph Sibilly, a DOE bus safety inspector and GBS principal Dr. Whitman Browne at 9 a.m. in the school cafeteria.
Varlack Ventures representative Delrise Varlack was invited to the meeting as well, but could not attend because of personal reasons, according to Smith-Barry.
“It was very important for me to meet with you face to face after the unfortunate accident on Wednesday,” said Smith-Barry. “After learning of what happened we are really just so sad on one hand and thankful on the other because a major tragedy was averted.”
While the accident did not result in serious injuries, it was not handled properly at all, Smith-Barry told GBS parents.
“Some things happened that shouldn’t have happened,” she said. “You were not notified properly. I tried to contact all parents when I found out about what happened but one phone number didn’t work and I couldn’t get a hold of another parent.”
DOE is responsible for children’s safety from the time parents put their children on the school bus in the morning until they are dropped off in the afternoon, according to Smith-Barry.
“We are responsible for your children from the time they leave you until they come back to you,” she said. “What happened shouldn’t have happened that way. You wait for authorities to arrive and we need that to be corrected.”
“We make your children’s safety a major concern,” said Smith-Barry. “We don’t do this alone. We contract with Varlack Ventures and we all have to be on the same page.”
Smith-Barry had not had a chance to meet with Varlack representatives at the time of the GBS meeting. She had still not had a chance to meet with the bus company officials or the bus driver himself as of press time last week, the Insular Superintendent explained.
“That is something I have to follow up on,” said Smith-Barry. “I have had a conversation with Miss Varlack but I have not met with her officially yet. I do need the opportunity to meet with her and the bus driver and I haven’t had that yet.”
While discussing several guidelines which she hoped to implement regarding bus safety, Smith-Barry was unable to share details of those guidelines because she has not met with Varlack officials.
Instead, she heard from parents who were frustrated and hoping for answers.
“This could have been a potential tragedy,” said one parent. “People have had many incidents with this particular bus driver. What is being done about this.”
“Change only happens when something goes wrong and something went wrong here,” she said. “That driver should be here and Varlack Ventures should be here. This is like a hit and run.”
The bus driver is employed by Varlack Ventures, and while Smith-Barry requested that he not drive students last week, she has no authority to insist that “Junior” be taken off the bus route, the Insular Superintendent explained.
“I’m thankful that my kids are alive,” said another parent. “The size of the bus is unacceptable for our roads and the speed of this bus driver is unacceptable. My daughter doesn’t want to ride the bus because she’s afraid and she says the driver is mean.”
A separate adult monitor is needed on the school bus because the bus driver is not capable of disciplining students and driving at the same time, explained another parent.
“When he is driving around those corners, the driver can not monitor those children,” said the parent. “You need someone else on that bus.”
All school buses in the district were recently equipped with video surveillance cameras, including the bus involved in the recent accident, explained Smith-Barry, who “had not had a chance” to view that footage as of press time.
“I have to get back in touch with the tech person,” she said. “I have not had a chance to deal with that yet.”
Several St. John Rescue officials at last week’s GBS meeting offered to help staff monitors on school buses with EMT trained volunteers.
Whether monitors or written protocol regarding responding to accidents, something needs to change, explained another parent.
“We have to follow up on this and put things in place so this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We need monitors and we need to take our children’s safety seriously.”