School bus safety focus of hearing

Published 11:46 am Wednesday, January 16, 2019



The Southampton County School Board allowed residents to provide input for the 2019-2020 school budget at Monday night’s meeting. But the three people who spoke were there to address their concerns about the school bus accident that occurred last Friday.

As reported on Sunday, the school bus driver, Trina Woolard, had a single-car accident that afternoon on Old Joyner Lane in the Capron area. As to the cause, a Southampton County Sheriff’s spokesman stated it appeared the bus had been “traveling too fast for the road conditions and ran off the road and hit a tree.” Woolard later added that it had been raining, the dirt road had been especially muddy and, as she went around a curve, the bus started to slide. After stopping, the driver followed established protocol by immediately checking on the 23 students. There were no visible signs of bleeding or serious injury. That apparent lack of injuries is part of the reason why there had been an approximate 30-minute gap between the event and when 911 was called.

That delay in contacting emergency services and parents was especially troublesome to the speakers.

“Last Friday, there was a lot of miscommunication when the accident occurred,” said Sean Osborne, whose 11-year-old son was involved in the accident. “I know that with this new protocol, we were advised to call 911 when similar incidents occurred, and I am really concerned about that protocol. Thank God it wasn’t a serious accident. It could be much worse. I just want to know what are some other protocols besides calling 911.”

Osborne’s wife, Andrea, shared what she went through to find out if her son was OK.

“The accident is no one’s fault, but the way it was handled afterward is mind-boggling. The fact that I had to call 911 is nerve-racking. I waited for hours after I called 911, and then I found out he was OK when I saw a Facebook post about the accident.”

She then suggested the school board should budget for pay raises and extra training for existing bus drivers and also in order to recruit new bus drivers.

“The bus drivers make less than $10,000/year, and they are pressured to make 3-4 runs to get the kids to and from school. In these buses, you have three kids per seat, and there are kids in the aisle. That’s not safe. I cannot tell my son that everything is going to be OK, when I know it’s not.”

Chris Tsitsera, coordinator of Federal Programs, stated on Tuesday afternoon that earlier on Jan. 8, “I rode Bus 190 to verify addresses and students riding the bus during the afternoon route. Prior to leaving the parking lot, all students were in a seat. At the first stop, one student had moved from a seat to the floor in the aisle. The student was directed to move back to his seat. Once he was back in his seat, the bus continued on the route.”

Deric Everett, a neighbor of the Osbornes, also spoke about the accident.

“My kids were not on this bus, but this is extremely unacceptable. The person who is in charge is of the upmost importance to me. Every team has a leader. If there is no leader, there is no team. I hope the board will convene to find a way to improve on this.”

The board did not comment afterward.

Asked on Tuesday afternoon to clarify why there was a gap between the accident and calling 911, Supt. Dr. Gwendolyn Shannon emphasized to The Tidewater News that Woolard — who she said has an otherwise “impeccable record” — had followed protocol. Shannon said that meant the next step was to call Director of Transportation Ruth Burch. But because Burch had been initially told there were no injuries, she believed at the time there was no need to call 911.

Nevertheless, Burch in turn went to the next step of contacting a building administrator, which in this case was Capron Elementary School Principal Dr. Allison Francis. Accompanied by her husband, they arrived at the scene to assess the situation.

That’s when a handful of children said they were feeling unwell, so 911 was called. Will Melbye and Tsitsera had also joined the couple to assist. Anytime there is such an incident, said Shannon, a team of administrators is dispatched, which is part of the school division’s crisis plan.

As an aside, the superintendent later stated that “District administrators have been riding buses for the past two weeks to ensure the accuracy of all routes and to work with drivers on any concerns.”

Further, Will Melbye, former principal of Riverdale Elementary School, has been moved to the position of interim executive coordinator of auxiliary services and transportation. He began serving in that capacity on the morning of Friday, Jan. 4, which coincidentally, is the date of the bus accident.”

As for reaching the parents, the student database could not be accessed because there were reception issues in the area that delayed on-site contact. Once she was notified, the superintendent had office administrators, secretaries and other personnel to notify parents via social media and then by the instant alert system.

“We did everything we could to notify parents,” said Shannon.

In a press release sent made to the paper later on Tuesday, she stated that Southampton County Schools has already increased the pay for drivers of extra-curricular activities and increased substitute driver pay at the December 2018 School Board meeting.

“We are currently exploring the feasibility of increasing the salary for all drivers,” Shannon added.

Further, “Our number one goal is student safety and our focus is on-route accuracy and efficiency, ridership and bus location tracking. We are currently working with our routing software company,

“Transfinder, on GPS incorporation, a student tracking system, and an integrated parent notification system. We have purchased and have received push-to-talk phones for all bus drivers and are in the process of programming the phones.

“We have reiterated to our drivers that regardless of the intensity of an accident, whether students are involved or not, we will immediately call 911 first.”


In other school-related news, the superintendent discussed the update concerning the JROTC Program.

“Last meeting, we applied for the Navy JROTC program,” she said. “The Marine Corps program is no longer accepting applications. Our application for the Army JROTC is still processing. There is an application for the Air Force program, but we are currently on the waiting list.”

The school board approved the VSBA Code of Conduct for School Board Members as well as a request by Kelli Gillette for the Gifted Advisory Council.

During the instructional report, Gillette shared with the board about upcoming SOL testing. She stated that the state benchmarks will remain the same and that grades 3-8 reading and math standards of learning will continue to be administered using computer adaptive testing.

“With computer adaptive testing, if a student performs well on an item, they will be given a more difficult question,” said Gillette, “If they do poorly, they will be given a simpler question.”

She also presented some important dates. PALS Testing for PreK to third grade students will be from Jan. 3 to 30, and the second nine-week benchmark will be from Jan. 23-31.

The Standards of Learning testing schedule for middle and high school students are as follows:

Middle School

  Algebra I – Jan. 22

High School

• English 11 & World History I – Jan. 15

• US History & World History II – Jan. 16

• Earth Science, Biology & Chemistry – Jan. 17

• Algebra I, Algebra II, & Geometry – Jan. 23

The student enrollment report was presented near the end of the meeting. In December, the total of students that enrolled was 2,851 which includes 147 pre-school students and 12 special education pre-school students.