Investigative

I-Team investigates school bus safety

I-team investigates safety of valley sch

COACHELLA VALLEY, Calif. - Valley children are heading back to school this month, which means local districts are gearing up to welcome students back for the new school year. This includes making sure all school buses are safe before hitting the road. 

"As you can imagine, this is extremely important work on this side," Clayton Hill, Director of Maintenance, Operation, and Transportation for Desert Sands Unified School District said. 

Operation and Transportation for Desert Sands Unified School District said. 

But before the first bell, one district already made headlines.

In June, News Channel 3 obtained a video of a boy with autism left on a Coachella Valley Unified school bus in September 2014. 

Read more about the school bus footage

It's a video that then Superintendent Dr. Darryl Adams denied even existing.   

The video prompted KESQ's I-Team to investigate California Highway Patrol (CHP) school bus inspection reports from the last two years.

The reports check everything on a bus top to bottom, inside and out, determining whether they're safe for the road.

KESQ obtained reports spanning across all three Valley school districts, including CVUSD.

A district whose transportation department now led by Apolonio Del Toro. 

"At the time, I had seen some of the news articles, (and) I knew there were some problems with transportation," Del Toro said. "So, I thought what better way to lend some of my expertize in transportation to a district that needed it."

Del Toro took over as CVUSD's Director of Transportation exactly one year ago, after more than two decades of working with Sunline Transit Agency.

"There was a lack of leadership within the transportation department, and that was just mainly due to the personnel here," he said. "There was no director. So, they were actively looking for a director for some time. So, I think the vacuum of not having a director caused some of these issues."

Del Toro's referring to three 'Unsatisfactory' CHP inspection reports in March, June and October 2016. 

One violation from the June report listed the carrier did not have brake inspector qualifications documentation certifications for each mechanic working on the district's buses.

However, Del Toro said that doesn't mean there weren't any mechanics certified to check the brakes on every school bus in the district.

"When we look at that rule, it's what makes them qualified," he said. "So, it's going to be the time they have working on there, because you can gain that experience through training, and/or a trade school, and/or a state certified inspection. There are three ways of getting that certification. So, what we didn't have at the time was the documentation that they were in school, so the answer was yes. we have had several people go through trade schools. In November, I had a brake manufacturer, Haldex, come out. And they conducted a training. So, that adds to that."

Del Toro said there's been a change of culture since taking over as head of transportation.

The department does mock CHP and spot inspections on buses, as well as keep open lines of communication within the district and with inspectors. 

With that, he said the district improved to a 'Conditional' rating at the end of January,  and to 'Satisfactory' in July.

But with new state laws, he's also focusing on drivers, making sure they're keeping everyone inside safe.    

Del Toro said CVUSD will be one of the first school districts in California to put in each of their buses what's called a "Child Safety Check System," basically using technology, like a card or pushing a button, to hold each driver accountable to check their bus at the end of the day.

"It's going to not only alert the driver, but alert dispatch, and whoever is on the email," he said. "It's a cellular-based technology. The bus driver has to go to the back of the bus to check the bus. They're looking under the seats, making sure no one is under there or fell asleep on the bus. (They) push that button, and return to their next trip. If they fail to do so, we're going to be alerted. And we'll be able to communicate to the driver, 'Hey, what's going on? We noticed that there was a failure to inspect the bus."

But what about other Valley school districts? 

Reports for Desert Sands Unified showed no 'Unsatisfactory' ratings. 

District officials also told us they have a similar alert system equipped in new buses, with the driver having to go to the back of the bus and push a stop button after shutting off the engine. 

If the button is not pressed in time, a horn goes off. 

If a bus doesn't have this system, drivers place a stop sign in the bus's back emergency door.

"Every time that bus comes into the yard, there actually is a process of checking for students," Danny Pizan, Transportation Manager for Desert Sands Unified School District said. "And when they install the stop sign, that way we know that the bus has been checked."

Officials with Palm Springs Unified, who also had no 'Unsatisfactory' reports, said they have similar systems in their buses contracted with First Student. 

A bus company, district officials said, that's known for their emphasis on child safety. 

"The CHP might be out for one bus evaluation, if you will, we internally with First Student do every 3,000 miles or 45 days," Dr. Brian Murray, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services for Palm Springs Unified School District said. "So, that means that six or seven times throughout the school year, that bus is going to be evaluated by First Student mechanics, to ensure that they're safe."

But valley district leaders, including Del Toro, are taking every step to make each school year a safe one. 

"That's what I'm going to be looking forward to, is making sure we never get complacent again," Del Toro said. "Whether it's checking inside the bus, under the bus, around the bus, whatever we have to do as a transportation department. It's something I take a lot of pride in that, and I want to foster and instill that culture here in the district."

A state law, SB 1072, passed last fall and will make sure each bus in California is equipped with a Child Safety Check System for the 2018-2019 school year. 

As for cameras on school buses, CVUSD has them equipped in special education buses, while DSUSD and PSUSD officials said they have cameras equipped on every bus.

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