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Vail Daily column: Safety is top priority

This week in Chattanooga, funerals are underway for the children who perished in the horrific school bus crash there last Monday. Of the 37 students who boarded bus 366 that afternoon, six have died, three are in critical condition and two are now in fair condition. The driver, Johnthony K. Walker, is in custody and has been charged with vehicular homicide. The case is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Chattanooga police.

School-related tragedies such as these are, thankfully, infrequent, but when they do occur we must look past the pain and investigate what happened so that we can learn and make our schools and buses as safe as possible for our community’s children.

In looking at our safety systems and procedures, Eagle County compares quite favorably to Hamilton County, Tennessee, the district where the Chattanooga tragedy took place.

The first key difference lies in the organizational structure of how transportation works. In Hamilton County, the district had contracted out its transportation services to a private provider. Many districts have made this move and many others — including ours — have considered it, mostly for cost-saving reasons. Out-sourcing services such as transportation typically leads to lower personnel costs.

In Eagle County, we have rejected private contracting for our transportation services so that we would have greater control and responsibility over quality. All of our drivers are trained and certified district employees.

Eagle County Schools goes above and beyond to ensure our drivers and vehicles are of quality. When we hire a driver, they undergo an initial background check and are then finger-printed and checked through the FBI criminal database. They also have a pre-employment drug screen and Department of Transportation physical to ensure that they meet health requirements. We also require that they have a clear motor vehicle record.

In addition to up-front screening, our drivers also undergo both initial and ongoing training. Our drivers must obtain a Commercial Driver’s License for vehicles that are more than 26,001 pounds and a school bus endorsement. Our beginner driver training consists of 80 hours — 40 classroom and 40 driving, where some districts only require 60 hours of training. We also get a chance to re-evaluate drivers during this training period and release a driver from employment if we do not feel they are capable.

For ongoing training, Colorado mandates at least six hours of in-service training annually. However, we provide 24 hours, consisting of two days at the start of the school year and four two-hour trainings during the school year. To ensure ongoing quality, our trainers also go out and ride with the drivers to make sure that the driver is safe and interacting positively with students. Our transportation director also observes drivers for safety issues.

When we have a complaint about a driver’s behavior, a full investigation is conducted, which includes interviewing the driver, any passengers or witnesses and reviewing the video camera evidence from the bus to see what really happened.

We do not tolerate drivers being rude or disrespectful to students. Nor do we tolerate students being rude or disrespectful to drivers. If an issue arises, drivers are disciplined through our Human Resources processes. Students are disciplined per our student code of conduct.

Deviations from routes are handled similarly, through investigating the reason for the deviation and then taking appropriate steps. Routes are planned intentionally to maximize safety and efficiency. Drivers are expected to follow the route as written unless they are authorized to deviate for safety reasons.

In all, the culmination of these efforts in our district have led to an impressive safety record. Our last student injury came four years ago, resulting from a driver having to stop suddenly for a vehicle turning in front of them. Other than that, we have had no serious student injuries for more than two decades.

In addition to driver safety, we also work to keep the bus fleet safe. Vehicles are required to be inspected daily, before they move on route. Drivers report any defects to our on-staff mechanics, who work to repair the vehicles and provide regular maintenance. The passage of ballot question 3B will allow us to improve the bus fleet, adding vehicles that are as safe and fuel efficient as possible while retiring older buses.

The Chattanooga incident was indeed tragic and heartbreaking. However, residents of Eagle County should take pride in knowing our community schools take transporting our children incredibly seriously and that student safety is our top priority.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.