Laidlaw Transit, the state’s largest school bus company, is bracing itself for what could become a long ride on a rough road as state transportation, education and law enforcement officials begin probing its operations in two Santa Clarita school districts.
At an Assembly Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday, the company will have to respond to allegations--Laidlaw officials concede that some of them are true--that bus drivers are poorly trained, have made sexual advances toward students and have used excessive discipline on students.
The California Highway Patrol and the state Department of Education are also investigating the complaints, which surfaced from parents and former Laidlaw bus drivers. And while officials in the William S. Hart Union High School District and Newhall School District say they will wait for the investigations to end before making decisions, they have warned Laidlaw that its contracts with their districts are in jeopardy.
“Our lawyer is reviewing the contract,” said Clyde Smyth, superintendent of the Hart district.
Laidlaw, which transports 3,600 students in the Hart and Newhall districts, has served the area for 3 years.
140 School Systems
But there is more at stake in this hearing than just the company’s future in Santa Clarita. Laidlaw serves more than 140 California school systems, including districts in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Riverside, Long Beach and San Bernardino. William Johnson, Laidlaw vice president, said that since the allegations surfaced two weeks ago, school transportation supervisors have called him asking for explanations.
Johnson said he tells them that although some of the problems have been confirmed, they were isolated incidents and do not reflect the standards of Laidlaw, a Canadian-based firm that is the largest school bus company in North America. The company operates bus services in 19 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.
Johnson said the allegations, some voiced by disgruntled former Laidlaw employees, have put the company in a defensive posture. “We’re presumed guilty and have to prove ourselves innocent.”
He said Laidlaw drivers have been unfairly portrayed in the press as “perverts, drug abusers, child abusers and everything else.”
Since mid-October, the Newhall Signal, a local newspaper, has published a series of articles alleging a variety of abuses in the Laidlaw system in Santa Clarita.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he called the hearing because Laidlaw is the largest provider of school bus services in California and must answer to the charges. “Is this an isolated case?” Katz asked. “Or is this a problem throughout the Laidlaw system?”
San Fernando Hearing
The hearing will be in San Fernando City Hall from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday, when Assembly members plan to question Laidlaw representatives, school district officials, former bus drivers for the company and parents.
Elsewhere in the state, school districts that contract with Laidlaw variously praise or criticize the quality of the company’s service. Those unhappy with Laidlaw complain about scheduling or efficiency problems.
However, the Oct. 12 incident in Santa Clarita that launched the round of inquiries into Laidlaw and its drivers appeared to be much more serious.
According to Johnson and Gary Smith, transportation coordinator for the Hart and Newhall districts, a driver rolled up bus windows on a hot day while driving students home from Old Orchard Elementary School in Newhall. The driver said he took the disciplinary action because children were yelling, screaming and hanging out the windows.
Two weeks ago, Smith said the driver turned on the heater to further punish the students. Johnson and Smith say interviews with children show that the heater was off, a claim challenged by Sandra Blackthorn, a Newhall parent who met four girls shortly after they left the bus.
The children suffered in the closed bus, Blackthorn said. “Their whole bodies were wet from sweat. Their lips were very dry.”
The driver resigned under criticism from parents and the community, Johnson said. He said the driver’s motivation was sound--a boy was killed hanging out a Laidlaw bus window in New York 4 years ago--but his actions were wrong.
Johnson said bus drivers are now told not to close bus windows completely.
The Old Orchard incident soon spawned other reports of improper behavior by Laidlaw bus drivers in Santa Clarita. Johnson confirmed some of them:
* In June, a 19-year-old Hart bus driver was fired for having sex with a 14-year-old high school freshman. On July 29, Brett Meade, 19, of Sylmar pleaded no contest in Newhall Municipal Court to one count of unlawful sex with a minor. He was sentenced to 36 months probation and fined $1,033. Laidlaw has since agreed not to hire drivers under 21 years old, Johnson said.
* In the last 2 weeks, Laidlaw discovered that a driving instructor falsified training records at the Newhall bus yard to show that student drivers had received more training than they actually had. Johnson said the instructor spent 2 hours of a 3-hour training session running personal errands. The instructor was disciplined and is no longer permitted to train new drivers.
* In the last 18 months, a bus driver slapped an unruly student in an attempt to discipline him, Johnson said. The driver was fired.
* Laidlaw violated its own drug-testing policies 15 times in 2 years by not asking bus drivers to take drug tests after they were involved in Santa Clarita accidents that could have been caused by driver error. The 15 accidents were among 53 recorded since December, 1986. The accident count includes everything from a collision to a child tripping while he walked down the bus aisle. Drivers who test positive are allowed to enter rehabilitation programs. Those who refuse to take a drug test are fired, he said.
There have also been rumors that drivers used and sold drugs on the job and made sexual advances to female and male students. Those were investigated by school and Laidlaw officials--and, in some instances, by the Highway Patrol--but could not be verified, Smyth and Johnson said.
Some school districts served by Laidlaw are surprised by the reported problems.
Joe Nauyokas, transportation director for the Long Beach Unified School District, said Laidlaw operates a trouble-free 150-bus service for his district. Even so, he said, he called Laidlaw for reassurance after reading news stories about the problems in Santa Clarita.
Complaints About Service
Judy Rambeau, a spokeswoman with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said officials there were pleased with Laidlaw, which buses 2,300 students a day for the county to special education classes.
But James Kimble, business director for the Riverside Unified School District, said his district has had complaints about Laidlaw’s service. Kimble said turnover among drivers was high, the buses were routinely late and drivers were unfamiliar with their routes.
“I was to the point of terminating our contract,” he said.
The problems were so bad that Riverside and three other Inland Empire school districts served by Laidlaw met last summer to discuss how to prod the company into providing better service, Kimble said.
Despite his complaints, Kimble said Riverside will stay with Laidlaw for the moment. “They’re improving,” he said. “We’ve got their attention.”