Buses are alleged to be unsafe, women drivers allege harassment

Published 4:07 pm Friday, August 1, 2008

Bus drivers of the Picayune Separate Municipal School District have filed a number of complaints against district mechanics.

Bus drivers complaints allege district mechanics inadequately maintained buses and also allege improper behavior by the mechanics and threats of termination of employment.

School District assistant superintendent Brent Harrell said the complaints have not been filed in the proper manner but investigations into the complaints in the letter show they are unfounded.

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A major complaint deals with improperly maintained buses that endanger the lives of the children they transport, said American Federation of Teachers of Mississippi president Sue Hatem.

There have been reports turned into the AFT concerning the suspicion of air being let out of the brakes. When bus drivers would tell the mechanics about a lack of braking power, mechanics would laugh. If the bus drivers had complaints about the bus breaking down or losing power, the mechanics would tell them to drive the bus till it stops, Hatem said.

“I don’t think a bus driver would knowingly drive a bus if they know the brakes weren’t working,” Harrell said.

Other complaints listed in a letter from the AFT to the school district include steering problems, stop signs not working, dash gauges not working and transmission problems. Hatem said poorly maintained buses are a safety risk for students.

The letter of complaint was sent to the school district on May 9. When the letter failed to bring a response, AFT sent another on July 17. Hatem said AFT did get a response after a television news organization placed a call to the school district on the matter.

The AFT is an organization that supports the rights of all school staff, excluding management positions, Hatem said.

Harrell said he had received a letter dated May 9, and the allegations had been investigated. The investigation found no validity to the complaints, excluding one. The only concern found to be valid concerned mechanics smoking on school grounds. Harrell said tobacco use is prohibited on campus and the problem has been addressed.

As far as maintenance is concerned, Harrell said buses are inspected on a regular basis, some daily. Harrell said he can assure parents with children in the school district that the buses are safe and are driven by drivers who have undergone training. He also said the district has a good safety record.

“We aren’t putting buses on the road that aren’t safe,” Harrell said.

Other complaints sent to the AFT deal with female bus drivers enduring threats on the jobs by school district mechanics. Drivers have alleged that some mechanics have told them they will be fired if they are members of AFT, Hatem said. She would not give an exact number of bus drivers in the district who are members, but did say the majority of drivers are members .

Termination of employment based on affiliation with AFT is not possible since the district doesn’t know who belongs to it, Harrell said.

Hatem said some female drivers told her that mechanics also “wolf whistle” at, embarrass and demean them.

Harrell said there have been no complaints of such conduct filed under title 9. Title 9 laws prohibit sexual abuse or discrimination. However, an investigation into the claims in the letter about “wolf whistles,” and other similar behavior by mechanics were found to be unsubstantiated, he said.

Hatem has been told by the bus drivers that the drivers have tried to remedy the situation by talking with the transportation director and the state department of education but have been ignored by both.

“That’s my understanding, that’s what I’ve been told,” Hatem said.

Meetings requested by the bus drivers as a group have been refused by the school district, Hatem said. The district has agreed to meeting individually with drivers, but Hatem said the bus drivers don’t want to be singled out.

Group meetings have been declined based on the school district’s opinion that they are not productive, Harrell said.

“You can’t address individual issues with a group,” he said.

A meeting between Hatem and the administration has been set for Wednesday, Hatem said.