Bus drivers claim kids' health was endangered
Last updated 12/6/2007 at Noon
A group of Fallbrook Union Elementary School District (FUESD) bus drivers say the district failed to notify parents of a situation they felt endangered the health of children riding a certain school bus in 2004 and 2005.
Bus drivers Kathy Maebert, Roxanne Stanley and Gaylen Brady allege that students riding FUESD bus number 76 during those years were exposed to significant amounts of exhaust fumes, until the district finally repaired the bus in June of 2005.
“A smell doesn’t mean there is a danger,” said Jim Whitlock, assistant superintendent of personnel services at FUESD. “It’s interesting that no children or parents have complained about it.”
The drivers say exhaust from the bus was escaping back into the bus through a loose shroud that provided a six-inch passageway for the fumes to flow throughout the bus.
“If kids were getting sick, I’d know,” said Whitlock. “We regularly check each bus in our fleet every 45 days, and we have a newer fleet than other districts comparable to us.”
Whitlock did say that bus 76 was repaired in June of 2005, following a driver complaint, and produced a copy of the record that indicated the following tasks had been completed as a result: exhaust leak repaired, (2) tires replaced, reseal engine intake inside bus, replace decal inside right side emergency door, steam clean, replace clamp at turbo and replace headlight.
Stanley, who drove the bus during the time period in question, says before the bus was repaired, she suffered a collapsed lung in March of 2005 because of it.
“[The district] got me off the bus so I couldn’t tell the kids [what happened],” Stanley claims. “There were things made up to get me off the bus.”
Before driving this particular bus, Stanley says, she was a healthy, strong individual and 2007 marks her nineteenth year working for the elementary school district.
“What makes anyone think that some of those kids aren’t suffering with problems and the parents think it is something else?” Stanley asks.
Stanley said some of the symptoms she and/or others with excessive exposure to exhaust fumes experience are a nagging cough, flu-like symptoms, chronic bronchitis, headaches and, possibly, the onset of asthma.
Stanley claims after becoming ill and emphatically complaining about the condition of the bus, she was “continually harassed by supervisory personnel” and unfairly disciplined by the District.
Brady says he distinctly remembers Stanley reporting the problem with the bus to the transportation supervisor and says he feels Stanley was treated unfairly because “she asks a lot of questions.”
Other drivers of the same bus concur with Stanley’s reports.
Maebert says that, after running the bus on its morning route one day, she informed a district mechanic, “There was an odor in the bus.”
“He and I looked around the back interior,” she says, “and discovered an opening along the right side to back of wall which we were able to see sunlight through and possible looseness around the big box on [the] righthand side in back of .
“[He] said he would seal up the openings and let me drive the bus for the afternoon route. After closing the windows, I [then] started to experience a severe headache along with severe stomach cramps and <an> extremely sore throat.”
“It was horrific how sick [the bus] made me feel,” Maebert said. “No wonder [Roxanne] was sick.”
Another driver, Melissa Seymour, says she is certain the same bus made her ill when she drove it for roughly three months while Stanley was out on medical leave.
“Every single time I drove it, which was four or five times, I got bronchitis really bad,” said Seymour. “I’d spend three days on that bus, then I’d be out sick for a week. It kept making me sick. My lungs would just shut up.
“I was the senior driver, the lead driver, so I would be pulled off my [regular] special ed route and put in [Stanley’s] bus when she was out sick and I always had to take bus 76.
“Every time I complained about it smelling funny, [the mechanic] told me the bus was fine, that it was just all in my head.
“I would never tell [the kids] that they had to put the windows up in that bus. The kids complained every time about the smell.”
Seymour is now retired on medical disability after 23 years on the job.
During 2004 and 2005, bus number 76 was the vehicle used on the morning pickup and afternoon return route for third through sixth grade students traveling from Alturas Road to Live Oak Elementary School and seventh and eighth grade students traveling from Camp Pendleton to Potter Junior High.
Although the bus has since been repaired, it is no longer used as a primary bus, Brady says. “As far as I know it is only used, if needed, on field trips now.”
“This bus is not in regular service right now,” said Ray Proctor, assistant superintendent. “It’s used as a substitute bus – not for any fear of a problem, just that we like to rotate buses due to mileage numbers.”
Brady went on to say that he has noticed that additional precautions are being taken now in bus maintenance now that he claims never took place before.
“They are now taking some precautionary measures by having the mufflers cleaned on the buses,” Brady said.
What worries these drivers most is that they feel that parents of children who rode the bus during the problem time are not aware of the exhaust leak.
“Who knows where all the [Camp Pendleton] kids are now?” Brady said.
“When I asked my supervisor <at the time> if the parents were going to be notified, I was disciplined for insubordination,” Stanley said, “but they have to let parents know.”
“I feel very comfortable that we did everything we could to protect students and drivers,” Proctor said. “I’m not sure what [the drivers’] motivation is.”