SOMERS, N.Y. - Parents have been struggling with feelings of anger, frustration and fear ever since learning that a local school bus driver had been charged with transporting children while inebriated.
Some of these pent-up emotions were unleashed Tuesday, Jan. 7, at an emergency Board of Education meeting called to review the school district’s transportation policies.
The voices came from many different places, but most seemed to agree that multiple mistakes were made in the handling of the Dec. 9 Bus P incident in which driver William J. Mendez had to be pulled from his route. Nine days later, he was hit with DWI charges.
While all made their points emphatically Tuesday, one especially vocal speaker demanded that schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch resign. Transportation chief Joseph Bernardi is on administrative leave. Royal Coach Lines, the bus contractor that employed Mendez, has let its safety director go.
Mendez, 61, has been charged under Leandra’s Law, which makes it an automatic felony to drive while intoxicated with a child 15 or younger in a vehicle.
State Police have accused him of having a BAC of 0.22 percent, more than three times the legal limit.
‘9-1-1 SHOULD HAVE BEEN CALLED’
The presentation Tuesday by safety consultants Altaris was definitely not the last word.
An internal investigation is under way. A 12-person task force will help the district unpack the complex situation. Someone is required to remain in each school building until the last student has been dropped off. The district’s anonymous alert system was updated to include a transportation category.
Whatever more there is to learn, the district says it’s sure of one thing—several crucial “mistakes” were made in the way the incident was handled.
According to a letter Blanch sent to Somers families, the three biggest were:
1. 9-1-1 should have been called immediately by the district and by the Royal Coach bus terminal manager once it was determined that something was wrong, whether it was a medical emergency or a potentially criminal situation. Bernardi radioed the driver and told him to pull over at the next safest spot. He then followed the bus himself, which was not at the initial location indicated.
2. The driver should not have been removed from the scene until evaluated by police or EMS crews.
3. A formal parent-notification process should have taken place and children, whether physically hurt or mentally traumatized, should never have been allowed to continue riding the same bus home, even with a new driver.
The task force will examine how drivers are tested for drug and alcohol use and how they obtain their keys to their vehicles. It will also research the potential use of transportation technologies such as active surveillance cameras and ignition interlock devices into which drivers have to blow before vehicles can be started.
Altaris’s CEO John LaPlaca told the board that while some technologies are expensive, others cheap; some are doable, others impractical. All are worth looking into.
But, he emphasized, no one device or procedure can totally prevent another Bus P incident. Human beings frequently have to make judgment calls on the fly. That means that common sense must prevail over manuals, LaPlaca said.
Altaris recommends that bus dispatchers and certain school personnel be trained to spot the less-than-overt signs of intoxication.
“Will it prevent a person who gets their keys, goes on the bus and consumes alcohol? No. Will it prevent the person who’s going to do the first route and drink between the first and second route? No, unfortunately, it doesn’t,” LaPlaca said.
Royal Coach Lines, whose executive offices are in Yonkers, deploys 700 buses a day, employs 900 people and is responsible for the safety of thousands of children, whom president Steven DiPaolo called “precious cargo.”
In a nod to some of the longtime bus drivers and other “rank-and-file” in the crowd Tuesday, DiPaolo said: “Dec. 9 was a horrific day for all of us, including me. It’s never happened before.”
He said the company has removed its safety director, is hiring a “master instructor” to oversee operations and is examining drug and alcohol testing procedures.
Royal Coach promises to make things right.
“I will do everything in my power, with the district’s help, and yours. I’ll come to the task force meeting. I will be a part of it. I want to be a part of your solution,” DiPaolo vowed.
Parent Tomasine Mastrantoni wondered whether the district or Royal Coach had a policy to prevent drivers from working if they have had any disciplinary actions brought against them or had been speeding or involved in a car accident.
Mendez’s bus had banged into a car belonging to the father of one of the Bus P parents, Marialisa Zywotchenko, on Oct. 5, 2018.
According to LaPlaca, there was no internal investigation by the district. However, the accident report completed by police at the scene did not indicate there was any “operator impairment,” he said. A DOT-approved alcohol test was conducted by the bus company and a DOT drug screen form completed by D.R.S. Medical Review Service.
Zywotchenko, calling the test “totally insufficient,” was skeptical of the finding that alcohol was not involved in the 2018 incident.
She had complained to Royal Coach that a school bus had been speeding on Lovell Street and had stopped short and backed up when it missed a turn. Told it “would be taken care of,” she hoped “at the very least (the driver) would be tested then. Apparently, he wasn’t.”
“These are two instances where it could have been prevented…we could have stopped this from getting worse. And we did not. I should say, you did not,” Zywotchenko added.
Gary Portnoy, whose wife, Dr. Lindsay Portnoy, is board president, urged the district to reconsider its contract with Royal Coach. The couple have two children, one of whom was on the bus.
Volunteer basketball coach TJ McCormack, claiming that Somers had only narrowly escaped a terrible tragedy, demanded that Blanch “do the honorable thing and step aside.”
McCormack, calling the response to the incident woefully inadequate, said: “I don’t feel that anybody in this room really owns it.”
A visibly moved Portnoy then addressed the crowd.
“Don’t think for one moment that your board who represents you and your superintendent who represents us and our children have not been having very exhaustive conversations—and not just conversations—but taken some serious actions since this happened. And I can tell you with certainty that you cannot predict all of the horrible things that can happen, but you can learn from them, and do better,” she said.
Portnoy promised that whatever comes out of this experience, the district and the public “will get there together. This is not the last conversation about this matter.”
Blanch, a parent and soon-to-be grandfather, seemed to be grappling with a lot of strong emotions himself.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he admitted. But as a fellow community member whose own children have ridden on Somers school buses for “hundreds, if not thousands, of miles,” he said he’s having a hard time coming to grips with “why someone would do that and how they could come to that,” referring to the Bus P incident.
“All I can see are my babies’ faces in there and I can tell you it stinks. I have anger inside of me that I do not want to share this evening. This is not the place,” Blanch said.
The district has made a number of safety improvements in recent years, including hiring SROs and installing security vestibules, and it will continue to move forward with the help of the community, he promised.
“The social and emotional wellness and the safety of our children is paramount. And to more than suggest that is not my priority…It is No. 1 on my list,” Blanch said, punching the words out.