Goodman: Discipline lax in PBC school bus child-safety alarm scandal

A school bus leaves the Central Bus Compound. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

A memorandum?

That’s the only consequence for a Palm Beach County Public Schools driver who tampers with a child-safety alarm on a school bus?

Absurd. Yet that’s how Donald Fennoy, the school district’s chief operating officer, explained how the district plans to prevent future efforts to disable the alarms.

“Bus drivers and attendants found to be disarming the child alert and/or camera systems will be issued a memorandum,” Fennoy wrote to the school board’s inspector general.

The district needs to take this far more seriously. These alarms are meant to ensure that students aren’t left behind on an emptying bus. The device sounds if a driver fails to walk to the back of the bus and deactivates it.

In October 2015, a bus driver and aide left an autistic 7-year-old alone on an empty bus for more than three hours. A mechanic eventually discovered the boy at a bus compound. The bus wasn’t equipped with an alarm; in such cases, the driver and aide were supposed to do a visual check and hang an “EMPTY” sign on the rear window. The two were later arrested on charges of child neglect.

Pretty important devices, right? Yet an inspection of 89 buses last May found that the child-safety alarms weren’t working on 58 of them, Post reporter Andrew Marra reported. On 31 of the 89 buses, auditors found that the alarms had been manually disconnected.

Worse, most of the drivers and transportation officials in charge of inspecting the alarms claimed in reports that the devices were in working condition, the inspector general found.

A recently released audit report didn’t say who disconnected the devices or whether officials intentionally falsified inspection reports to hide the fact they weren’t working.

Bus drivers are obvious suspects, but a spokeswoman for the bus drivers’ union said that drivers wouldn’t know enough about the buses’ electrical systems to tinker with the alarms, and noted that many bus drivers had come forward to report alarms that weren’t working. Afifa Khaliq, the spokeswoman, pointed the finger at mechanics: “It might be a situation where the mechanic disabled it because it just kept ringing.”

The district says that the only bus that now has a malfunctioning alarm is off the road. And it says it’s taken steps to ensure that alarms aren’t tampered with, by encasing parts of the alarms in “an internal compartment so that the connectors are no longer exposed.

The district says it’s making it harder to falsify inspection reports by requiring a foreperson “to physically inspect the bus to check the safety alarms and video systems before signing off the inspection forms.”

Anyone violating these rules, presumably, will face the dreaded memorandum.