Bus company’s safety record questioned

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NAUGATUCK — Borough students may not be getting the bus safety training required by state statute.

Potential negligence on the part of Student Transportation of America, the bus company contracted by the school board, was a topic of conversation at this month’s regular meeting of the Board of Education.

Claims were made that in the years since STA has taken the contract, it has failed to administer emergency evacuation drills.

According to Department of Motor Vehicle regulations outlined in the Connecticut General Statues (Sec. 14-275), “At least twice during each school year, each pupil shall be instructed in safe riding practices and participate in emergency evacuation drills.”

According to a former school system employee, STA is falling short of this state regulation, and Naugatuck students are not being instructed or evacuated at all.

“Safety drills have not been in place for the past three years, since STA had this contract,” said Thomas Louth, former transportation coordinator for the district during public comment. “This claim was looked into, and upon further review it was found to be accurate.”

Members of the board also acknowledged STA’s safety instruction or lack thereof.

“I don’t know how long it’s been lacking, but for the last school year I didn’t see any evacuation drills,” said Rocky Vitale, a member of the school board’s transportation subcommittee.

A public relations agent spoke on behalf of STA, saying the company had, contrary to the claims of a former school board employee, conducted safety drills in the 2009-10 school year.

Naugatuck is one of the more than 200 school districts throughout the United Sates and Canada that have contracted with STA, whose representatives declare that “safety is the first and most important mission of every employee.” The company also claims to have “one of the most comprehensive safety and security programs in the industry.”

When questioned about STA’s safety record in Naugatuck, the company’s representatives had little to say.

“I have not heard any of these claims,” said John H. Spang Jr., STA’s Director of Operations for the region. “They should be happening twice a year. I just don’t know whether or not they are.”

Spang said the responsibility of ensuring the drills are conducted falls on the shoulders of Terminal Manager Tom Mariano, who has been out of the local STA office for health-related reasons for several days.

When contacted on his cell phone, Mariano answered only one question, giving an incorrect response by saying the state mandates safety evacuation drills only once per year. When asked if STA had been conducting the drills, Mariano said he could no longer hear the conversation and that his cell phone wasn’t working. The call was then disconnected.

He could not be reached again despite repeated calls to STA’s offices and his cell phone.

Lynette F. Viviani, a public relations agent that works for STA, said that drills were conducted last year but did not provide dates. She added that specific dates have been planned for the school year starting Aug. 27.

“We are working closely with Naugatuck Public Schools and evacuation drill dates already have been set for the coming school year; drills will begin on Sept. 15,” Viviani wrote in e-mail correspondence with Citizen’s News.

School board members said they would not abide a lack of safety training and that they expect STA to fulfill all duties that they have been contracted to do.

“It’s clear to me in the contract that the bus companies need to coordinate with the schools for emergency evacuation drills,” Vitale said. “Any vendor for the Board of Education needs to adhere to the terms of the contract. These drills are required by the contract and they need to be performed; it’s a safety issue.”

Not only does the absence of these drills leave children untrained, it could also leave the borough liable in the event of an injury.

“If something were to happen you would be in deep stuff. It is really gross negligence on your end,” Louth said at the meeting two weeks ago.

“God forbid if something ever happens and you haven’t been holding their feet to the fire, then you’re going to be liable.”

The Board of Education plans to ensure safety evacuations are happening on all borough buses this coming year. Vitale said he expects a complete report at the next meeting of the transportation subcommittee.