Tougher field trip safety checks loom after Tomlinson bus scare in DC
Fairfield school parents are saying they hope school officials learned an important safety lesson after a field trip by 250 Tomlinson Middle School eighth-grade students to Washington, D.C., last week hit a bump in the road when their buses were ordered out of service after it was discovered they were unregistered and uninsured.
One immediate result of last Wednesday's incident is that other Fairfield school field trips booked with the same bus company have been cancelled, officials said.
The five 55-passenger motor coaches -- provided by ABC, Affordable Bus Charter in Northford -- were stopped outside Arlington National Cemetery after the state Department of Motor Vehicles, acting on an inquiry from Fairfield's school transportation director, confirmed the vehicles' registration and insurance coverage had lapsed in late March.
The Tomlinson students remained on the buses until school officials arranged for alternate transportation and, after the disruption, were able to continue their trip and returned home Friday as scheduled. Teacher chaperones accompanying the Tomlinson group said the students handled the change without difficulty, attended a play at the Ford Theatre on Wednesday and went to sleep soon after arriving back at the hotel that night.
Christine Vitale, whose 13-year-old daughter Katherine was on the trip, said parents already were a bit worried about "letting your child go away, especially after the charter bus accident on I-95 a few weeks ago." But when the buses' registration and insurance violations came to light, she said, parents' anxiety only increased.
While parents back in Fairfield were concerned by the news, she added, the students took the incident in stride. "The kids were not at all fazed by it," Vitale said of the buses being stopped by D.C. law-enforcement after being notified by the Connecticut DMV. "She (Katherine) didn't text me while it was happening."
The only inconvenience for the Tomlinson tour group, she said, occurred when they couldn't eat dinner at the restaurant where they had planned that night. Instead, they were supplied food in containers and had to eat in a nearby park.
Vitale said last week's incident illustrates the necessity of checking the registration and insurance for every bus used for field trips, no matter what the bus company and how familiar school officials are with its record.
She added that any local PTA leasing buses also should be required to have the central school transportation office review the arrangements.
"God forbid something did happen," said Vitale. "In this case, the sun was shining, but it might have been a different situation if it was pouring rain. Hopefully a lesson has been learned and we'll never find ourselves in this situation again."
Parent Cheryl Hawthorne agreed with Vitale that the school district should double-check every bus before students are transported on field trips, just to "make sure everything is up to date."
Ultimately, she said, the school district would be responsible if any problems were to occur on a field trip.
An inquiry by John Ficke, the supervisor of transportation for Fairfield public schools, triggered the DMV investigation that resulted in the ABC buses being suddenly taken out of service. He went to the school Wednesday morning when students were picked up to make sure all five motor coaches booked by the travel agent showed up. But when Ficke saw the vehicles were not typical school buses or Peter Pan Bus Line coaches -- a company known to his office since it often provides buses for Fairfield student field trips -- he decided to do some double-checking. He wrote down the license plate numbers for the ABC motor coaches and asked the DMV to check them out.
"I sent a question to DMV asking where I would check them," said Ficke. "They gave me the state Department of Transportation, which is in charge of coach buses."
He was told that registration for the ABC buses had lapsed March 31. That same review also found insurance had been cancelled in late March, the DMV said.
Ficke said that several future school trips booked with ABC have been cancelled by Fairfield officials because the bus company has not answered questions about the unregistered and uninsured motor coaches.
Asked why ABC might have transported students on a lengthy field trip aboard buses that lacked the required registration and insurance, he said, "It certainly wasn't a good business decision."
Ficke said the recent casino tour bus crash that killed 15 on Interstate 95 in the Bronx came to mind when he spotted the ABC buses.
Some of Fairfield's PTAs sometimes arrange field trips on their own, Ficke said. Those independent plans, he said, in the future will likely have to be reviewed by himself and the Board of Education in the wake of the problems with the Tomlinson trip.
Ficke said if the commercial coaches had been owned by Peter Pan, he probably wouldn't have jotted down the license plates for a background check. In the future, Ficke said, even if he is familiar with a transit company, every bus is likely to have its registration and insurance coverage checked. He said he plans to discuss that with the school board as well.
Ficke said his office recently purchased software designed to provide oversight for all Fairfield student transportation.
Once the ABC motor coaches were ordered off the road, school officials arranged with Dattco to provide alternate buses to transport the Tomlinson students around the capital and bring them back home.
A person at the ABC office said no one there could comment.
The DMV and the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are investigating the incident.
"We are very glad that students are fine, that nothing happened to anyone and that they can continue on their school trip," DMV Commissioner Melody A. Currey said in a statement. "For the safety of the children involved, DMV's Commercial Vehicle Safety Division took action quickly to have the buses stopped because of this violation of state laws."
First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said he was pleased with how quickly the school district resolved the problem.
"I'm so thankful none of the unregistered buses were in a mishap," he said. "It's a good lesson to be learned for doing something short notice."
The vehicles in question are motor coaches and not typical yellow school buses, and were booked for the trip by Michael Bolesta, owner of Capital City Student Tours, according to Tomlinson officials. Bolesta "has accepted responsibility for the incident," officials said in a letter sent Thursday to Tomlinson parents.
A check on the five bus drivers' licenses found that they hold valid licenses to drive the buses.
DMV and federal officials on Thursday went to the bus company to review company records and files, according to state officials. The company has a vehicle out-of-service rating of 22.4 percent, while the national average is 20.72 percent, according to the DMV. It has a driver out-of-service rating of 15 percent while the national average is 5.51 percent, the agency said.