A school bus with as many as 21 students from Guy Benjamin School was en route to Cruz Bay when it slammed into a section of guard rail on Centerline Road. Several students were injured in the crash which Department of Education officials are continuing to investigate.
Every parents’ worst nightmare just about came true last week when a St. John school bus almost flipped over the side of Centerline Road and careened down the 200-foot hillside.
Instead, the school bus slammed into a portion of the recently installed guard rail on Centerline Road and flopped back onto its four wheels around 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, April 4.
At least eight Guy Benjamin School students were treated for injuries at Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center, but not until after they were taken off the bus, transferred to a second bus and dropped off in Cruz Bay.
The school bus, which is run by Varlack Ventures, a contract operator for the V.I. Department of Education, was traveling to Cruz Bay from the Coral Bay elementary school with between 15 and 21 students on board when it slammed into the guard rail just past Upper Carolina on Centerline Road around 3:30 p.m.
DOE officials last week did not provide details on the exact number of students who were on the bus at the time of the accident or the number of students who were treated at MKSCHC.
None of the students were seriously injured, according to officials, but parents were most troubled by the fact that neither parents, DOE officials nor emergency responders were notified of the accident.
The school bus driver called the V.I. Police Department to report the accident but reportedly told officials that no one was injured; a determination which the bus driver had no right to make, according to St. John Rescue communications officer Gilly Grimes.
“The driver took it upon himself to call another bus to pick up the children,” said Grimes. “He dispatched the children before the VIPD even showed up. When he called to report the incident, he said there were no injuries, which he was in no position to determine.”
“He should have called for emergency medical responders immediately and not allowed any of the children to leave the scene until they were checked out,” said Grimes. “Why would you not call for help unless you had something to hide.”
Once students arrived in Cruz Bay, it was parents who took their children to MKSCHC for treatment, Grimes added.
“I got word from one of our members,” said Grimes. “EMS was not dispatched because it was reported that there were no injuries. But there were no medical professionals there who could have determined that.”
“The kids weren’t wearing seat belts and you have to treat everyone like they are injured in a case like that,” said the St. John Rescue officer.
Parents of GBS students were not informed of the school bus accident until after their children were dropped off in Cruz Bay. After several children reportedly complained of neck pain, at least eight parents took their children to the health center to be checked, according one GBS parent.
“My concern is that there were children who were not taken to the clinic,” said the parent. “Some of these kids walk home from school and their parents didn’t know about the accident. If one of those kids had a concussion and went to sleep, they could have never woken up.”
Beyond not informing parents, EMS or DOE officials of the accident, the school bus driver yelled at students, according to the parent.
“The kids were telling me how the driver was yelling at them and telling them they weren’t hurt and to just get on the other bus,” said the parent.
More troubling details about the school bus driver’s behavior emerged last week as well.
Several other drivers who saw the accident reported that the bus had been swerving for several miles before plowing into the guard rail. This latest accident is not the first time this same school bus driver has been in a collision, and it’s a well-known fact that the driver is unsafe, according to several GBS parents.
“This guy should not be on the road much less driving a school bus,” said one GBS parent.
“It’s a well known community fact that this guy drives like a maniac,” said another parent. “He recently had an accident on Supreme Corner but luckily no children were on the bus that time. I hope this driver never gets behind the wheel of a school bus again.”
Several students said that he had been talking on his cell phone, according to parents.
“My son said that the bus driver is usually frowning and unhappy but on Wednesday he was smiling and happy, so…,” said the parent. “And several kids said they saw him talking on his cell phone.”
DOE officials were still looking into the school bus accident last week and were especially concerned about the way the driver reacted in the wake of the collision, explained St. Thomas/St. John District Insular Superintendent Jeantte Smith-Barry.
“The way this was handled is one of the areas that I am very concerned about,” said Smith-Barry. “I too am asking those questions and that is part of our investigation. We do not feel that the matter was handled appropriately.”
DOE officials last week were most concerned with the safety of the children aboard the school bus, Smith-Barry explained.
“Right now I am very concerned about the students who were not taken to the clinic which is where they all should have been taken,” said the DOE District Superintendent.
“The children should not have been taken from the scene. I am trying to tell all parents to take their children to the clinic if they have not already.”
“We are especially concerned about the fact of having the children transported and not ensure that they were alright before letting them go,” said Smith-Barry. “The driver needed to make sure that not one student left the scene until authorities got there. That is a really big issue for us and we’re going to address that.”
The school bus driver did not report the incident to DOE officials either, Smith-Barry added.
“Parents need to be notified promptly of these kinds of incidents,” she said. “My office was not notified promptly either. It seems like notification came from some parents and that is unacceptable.”
Smith-Barry declined to comment last week on any disciplinary actions or criminal charges DOE planned to pursue against the school bus driver.
“I cannot say at this time because I don’t have all the facts,” said the DOE District Superintendent. “I am looking very, very seriously into these issues.”
DOE officials were hoping to contact all GBS parents last week, Smith-Barry added.
“One of the things I am doing is trying to contact parents,” she said. “I want to be able to allay their fears. I understand very well that they are very concerned. This incident was not handled properly.”
“When accidents happen we have a responsibility to make sure that we promptly notify our parents and that did not happen,” said Smith-Barry. “A decision was made by the bus driver and that is not okay.”
Since the same school bus driver has also transported students to and from Gifft Hill School and Julius E. Sprauve School in the past as well, this issue is bigger than just GBS, explained one parent.
“Varlack Ventures is the contractor for the DOE and they operate buses for all of the schools,” said the parent. “This is not about just one small school in Coral Bay. This affects all students on St. John.”
Smith-Barry planned to schedule a meeting with GBS parents, but the date had not been set as of press time. GBS officials are hosting their monthly PTO meeting on Tuesday evening, April 10, at 5:45 p.m. at the school and invited any interested parents or residents to attend.
While DOE officials had not confirmed their plans to attend the PTO meeting as of press time, the department is taking this incident seriously, explained Smith-Barry.
“We’ll be following up on this,” she said. “We are not just going to let this pass by. This is a very, very serious concern to us.”