MIAMI – A controversy over proper safety protocol was stirred when a school bus driver hit three parked vehicles while driving her route with a bus load of children.
A Miami Public Schools bus driven by Eletha D. Perry, 55, of Miami, struck three parked vehicles in the 100 block of East Central Avenue around 3:43 p.m. on Monday, April 17, according to the Miami Police Department's collision report written by Officer Sean McDonald.
Perry received a citation for inattentive driving and not having a proper license. The second citation is expected to be withdrawn soon since the issue has now been resolved.
McDonald reported the bus driven by Perry was traveling east in the 100 Block of East Central Avenue in a yellow 2013 Blue school bus and that she leaned over to adjust a radio – first striking a parked white 2007 Jeep owned by Stace Sunby of Miami, and then striking a maroon 2016 Nissan Murano owned by Bradley Mitchell of Miami causing substantial damages and the disabling of both vehicles.
The collision appears to have sent the Nissan into another parked vehicle a black 1996 Chevrolet truck causing a dent in the tailgate of the truck. The owner of this vehicle is not identified in the report.
A motorcycle parked between Sunby and Mitchell's vehicles did not appear to have received any damages.
Twenty Miami Public Schools children were passengers in the Miami Public Schools bus in route to deliver the students home after school. No reports of any injuries are indicated by Officer McDonald's report.
Officer McDonald spoke with Perry, and she told him she leaned over to adjust a radio and did not see that she was leaving the roadway, according to his report.
Once the scene was assessed and having found no visible indicators of Perry being under the influence or in any medical distress, McDonald found no reason to hold her at the scene.
MPS Transportation director Mark Malcolm, who had arrived on the scene earlier, allowed Perry to leave and continue on her route delivering children to their homes.
The collision impact was loud and commotion and brought a crowd to the scene of the crash.
Ottawa County Clerk and owner of one of the vehicles Robyn Mitchell and Sunby and several bystanders were on the scene at the time, and many expressed concern to Officer McDonald and Malcolm about the driver's condition and asking why an alternate driver or Malcolm wasn't used to complete the route.
“Because we don't have enough drivers,” Malcolm said at the scene.
The MPS school bus received minimal damage and remained functional.
Witnesses at the scene were telling police the students on the bus were saying the driver was on her cell phone and may have run a red light.
Parents and community members took to social media to comment after learning of the incident. Many were concerned, upset or outraged by the decision made to allow Perry to continue driving the bus to deliver children on her route after the wreck saying the district should have erred on the side of safety.
“I am outraged by this and that she continued her route and no parents were informed. I have called the school and taken her off the bus, and she will be a car rider the rest of this year. I will not put her back on that bus with that driver,” Misty McDowell, the mother of an 8year-old student said.
McDowell said her daughter has ridden the bus for several years and she had been pleased until this year when her daughter and other students on the bus have told her the driver texts while driving, has fallen asleep, and struck mailboxes.
MPS Superintendent Jeremy Hogan said Perry did hit a mailbox in a turnaround and reported the earlier incident to the district.
“The first thing is to make sure students are safe and secure and non-injured, first and foremost,” Hogan said. “There are no injuries we’re aware of that have been reported to us.”
The bus driver also was uninjured, according to Hogan.
“If there is injury, automatically they are taken down for a check and of course they have to go through a screening process for alcohol and drugs. If there is no injury that’s kind of a local control decision, meaning that if they deem the bus is still operable and the driver is in a good state of mind and can finish the route that is a possibility,” Hogan said. “In that situation, Mr. Malcolm was on the scene and he made that call.”
Hogan said by policy a school official, an administrator, makes the decision if the driver is allowed to continue the route or a substitute would need to be called in to complete the bus route.
Personnel issues are not open to the public, and therefore Hogan could not confirm or disclose if Perry had subsequently been drug and alcohol tested or could not disclose when this may have occurred. He was unable to say how long Perry’s route took her to complete.
“What I can tell you is our policy is after any type of accident, yes, we do have them tested,” he said. “ If anything comes back, of course, some of that falls into the district and what we would do with their employment with the district, and some of that would fall under the jurisdiction of the police.”
Perry’s license on the Miami Police report is listed as an Oklahoma Class D license with an M endorsement.
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, to drive a school bus for an accredited school in the state of Oklahoma, a school bus driver must possess a Commercial Driver License (CDL) of the appropriate class for the vehicle driven with a school bus (S) and a passenger (P) endorsement. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) administers the CDL program. Additionally, drivers must possess a School Bus Driving Certificate issued by the State Department of Education (SDE). The requirements to receive the certificate include a current CDL, drug and alcohol testing, health certification, background checks, and completion of an approved school bus driving training class. Miami’s policy states the same and says if a driver receives a citation for a moving violation, they will be suspended until the completion of a thorough investigation of the incident, after which they will either resume duties as a bus driver or will be terminated depending upon the circumstances involved in the incident.
Hogan said the district has 13 drivers and they are randomly drug tested and driving records are checked continually throughout the year.
“They have to have all this done before transporting students. She’s been a driver for four years with the district, and she’s also held another job in the district as well before she became a bus driver. She’s an employee with a good track record, solid employee, somebody that can be counted on, that’s dependable,” Hogan said. “Part of that is we have to go through the state department too with accreditation. They come down and check all that and make sure everyone is certified.”
In Perry’s case, Hogan said he still doesn’t have a great explanation of why a Department of Public Safety check of her license indicates she was not properly licensed, according to Miami Police.
“There was a box that was left unchecked on a certification that would have to be renewed and so all she had to do yesterday (Wednesday) was go to the Boys & Girls Club where the testing station is and they took care of it there,” Hogan said. “Everything on our records, everything the driver knew, everything that district and State Department of Education knew, she had everything required. It was simply, I don’t know if it was a clerical error or what happened at DPS where it came though instead of a Class B as a Class D…We would never let anyone drive without a CDL, and we had just went through accreditation. I’m not sure what it was, but it’s been corrected now.”
Since the collision, Hogan said he has heard of complaints but has no eye witness reports of any improper driving, only second-hand accounts.
“We sure take it serious and want to look into it,” he said. “Student safety is the number one goal. We want to maintain that and keep it. Any time these incidents come up we dive into the policy and make any corrections as we go forward.”
Regarding whether another driver was available or Malcolm could have completed Perry’s route, Hogan said, “Again, that’s part of the process moving forward and making sure we correct that. This is a new deal for me and you get surprised all the time in schools and I’ll be honest with you I didn’t know bout the accident until a considerable amount of time afterwards. So, we have some cleaning up on our end to do, most definitely and we’ve got to look at our practices and make improvements in some areas. I am not going to sit here and criticize an employee that made a quick decision on what they thought was best to get these kids home, but through that process too we recognized that we need to contact parents. We failed in that end; we need to contact parents right away.”
Hogan said the district, and others across the state, have had difficulty finding bus drivers because the requirements are tough and pay is minimal.
“We’re sitting about five bus drivers short, and so we’re having bus holds. What that means is basically in afternoon routes we have several bus routes, those students have to be held at the school sites and we have to come back around and pick them up and take them home. So, you’re looking at an hour or so later before those kids get home,” Hogan said. “We’ve been good about communicating that.”
The district will be considering changes to next year’s student bus routes.
“We are going to look at our routes closely for next school year and we’re going to try to see if we can’t be more efficient, and even trim down our amount of bus routes that we run,” he said.
Hogan said he understood the parents’ anxiety and concern regarding this incident. Hogan said Malcolm is driving Perry’s route at this time until the investigation is completed.
“I don’t fault parents one bit. I feel the same. I’m a parent and I want to know where my kids are at and know they’re safe,” he said. “I do apologize. Any time parents are concerned about the safety of the students we recognize that and if there’s anything that needs to be corrected I assure them we will take the appropriate steps moving forward. We definitely do not want to make the same mistakes twice and want to ensure students are safe at all times whether in the school house or school bus.”
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.