Bus drivers and monitors, fearful they might be about to lose their livelihoods, are begging the school district not to give up on their employer, Royal Coach Lines.
Many of them also appeared at a recent Board of Education meeting to defend transportation director and chief emergency officer Joseph Bernardi, who is on administrative leave while the district unpacks the handling of the Bus P incident.
William J. Mendez, a 61-year-old Somers man and Royal Coach driver, faces charges of being intoxicated while transporting Somers Intermediate School students in December.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch told the crowd at the board’s meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14, that it was necessary to start seeking bids from other school bus providers now before that “option” disappears. It will be up to the school board to decide whether the RFP (Request for Proposals) process moves forward and whether Royal Coach can participate.
Blanch denied the move is, as some drivers claim, a “knee-jerk” reaction, saying all changes will be thoroughly thought out.
The district is gathering advice and information from safety experts, attorneys, police, school administrators, parents, drivers/monitors and the community at large. On Tuesday, Primrose Principal Katie Winter updated the board the transportation task force’s progress.
Some changes have already been made. Drivers now must be handed bus manifests by district employees rather than just picking up the lists. They are now to remain at the scene of an emergency until cleared by police or EMS.
“Without question we are working through a lot of emotions after the terrible incident with the bus driver. It is no surprise to me that our amazing community continues to come together, to listen to each other, and to offer productive solutions so nothing like that ever happens again in Somers,” Blanch said.
Backers said that while mistakes were undeniably made—9-1-1 was not called; Mendez was removed from the scene before he could be checked out by police or EMS; and parents weren’t properly reunited with their kids—Bernardi has served with integrity and should keep his job.
“He doesn’t deserve to be discarded due to Mr. Mendez’s disgraceful act,” said Victoria Serino, a former bus monitor who now drives Primrose students.
Until now, there have been no major incidents in the 15 years Bernardi’s been at the helm, she said, adding: “Our yard is a big family.”
“Removing Joe and Royal Coach will not change what happened. We can all work together to ensure that this will not happen again,” Serino said.
Retired district clerk Jane Kasack blamed Royal Coach: “They put us in this position. They should pay for whatever steps need to happen to make the children safe.”
Parents were adamant that someone must be held accountable. By not calling 9-1-1 after catching up to Mendez on the road that day, Bernardi “did the wrong thing,” said Vin Barron.
Parent George Bateman said Bernardi told parents he hadn’t called 9-1-1 because, he said, it was really up to the Royal Coach dispatcher. That dispatcher then admitted not calling because it wasn’t “deemed an emergency,” Bateman claimed.
“If your superiors aren’t qualified enough to recognize that as an emergency, then they can’t be responsible for our children,” he said.
While anger was evident Tuesday, so was empathy.
Parent Nancy Meza said “99 percent” of the district’s bus drivers “take good care of our children and treat them as their own.”
But Royal Coach could have headed off the current crisis if it had removed Mendez after his bus struck a car in 2018, she said.
That incident was investigated by police and alcohol tests conducted. No charges emerged.
Parents claim to have witnessed a school bus speeding and then backing up on busy Lovell Street after missing a stop.
“We need a bus company that’s going to get rid of that 1 percent that doesn’t have my child’s interest and safety at heart,” Meza said.
Parents sympathized with the drivers’ plight, but thought some might be minimizing the incident’s long-term effects.
No child was physically hurt, but many are suffering from mental trauma, according to parents..
One dad spoke poignantly of his child asking for a driver’s license for Christmas so he wouldn’t have to get into someone else’s vehicle.
Another said his 10-year-old son—once the “happiest kid in the world”—now dreams about death and is scared to sleep in his own bed.
“No, I’m not planning my child’s funeral. No, I’m not refitting my house for a wheelchair ramp. But I’m dealing with injury. I’m dealing with scars,” said Chris DiPasquale.
Driver John Wahlers agreed that it was “very serious.” “I don’t downplay it at all. Thank God no one was hurt.”
However, he said, if the district doesn’t renew its current contract, it would be “doing a disservice to this community, the workers, you guys, and Royal Coach all at one time.”
Drivers worried that their own children would be financially punished for one individual’s actions. “Now you’re affecting all our children’s lives and our families’ lives. And it’s not right,” said Donna Kennedy.
Kennedy, upset that monitors have been forbidden to touch their charges, not even to give them a comforting pat on the shoulder, said: “Let me tell you something, I hug those kids every day. I’m fixing their hair. I’m wiping their tears.”
The task force’s next report is due Tuesday, Jan. 28.
It’s looking at “opportunities” for improvement: technology, such as real-time camera monitoring and alcohol detection devices; procedures, such as clarifying exactly when 9-1-1 should be called; and logistics, such as where the transportation director’s office will be located.
The part-time safety/security coordinator’s role could be expanded and the jobs of transportation director and chief emergency officer split up.
Board President Dr. Lindsay Portnoy praised everyone’s willingness to “struggle together.”
“I hope that folks keep showing up to celebrate the amazing work…and some of the stuff we need to make better,” she said.