CONCORD -- A Mt. Diablo school district parent has filed a complaint with the California Highway Patrol, accusing the district of unsafe conditions on a school bus.
Ron Quinn and his wife, Raquel Escobar, said many students, including their son, are forced to sit three to a seat, with the third person hanging off the edge into the aisle. This does not meet safety recommendations from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA, they said.
"As far as I'm concerned, the school district is breaking the law," Quinn said Thursday.
The NHTSA says manufacturers determine the maximum capacity of buses, usually based on three small elementary students per seat. However, the agency recommends that "all passengers be seated entirely within the confines of the school bus seats while the bus is in motion," so they will be inside a protective envelope provided by the seats called compartmentalization.
"Persons not sitting or sitting partially outside of the school bus seats will not be afforded the occupant protection provided by the seats," the agency's website states.
After the district voted to close Glenbrook Middle School, the district arranged to transport students about four miles to El Dorado Middle School. Although the plan originally called for three buses, the district is instead using one bus to serve as many as 80 students, who have purchased passes costing $85 per semester.
Quinn complained to the school board about the overcrowded seating, saying many of the middle schoolers are as large as adults, and the conditions are unsafe. The district explored the idea of sending a second bus, but decided against that because it would get students to school about 10 minutes late, Superintendent Steven Lawrence said in an email. The maximum capacity of the bus is 84 students.
"Even though we are currently meeting all legal requirements, we understand the comfort concern and did look into sending a second bus," Lawrence wrote. "We do have another group of new drivers being trained and when their training is completed we will determine if we can send another bus that will arrive at the same time as the first bus."
Quinn said he was not satisfied with this response since it ignores students' safety. So, he complained Thursday to the CHP.
Officer Patrick Murphy said he had never received such a complaint, and he was not immediately aware what action the CHP could take.
"Generally," he said, "the school districts are pretty knowledgeable on the rules as far as the safety of children."
Dano Rybar, of the California Department of Education's Office of school transportation, said the state agrees with the NHTSA recommendation.
"The whole purpose of compartmentalization is to keep the child within it like a carton of eggs," Rybar said. "When you put too many eggs in a carton, they're going to break."
If a bus got into an accident, he said, an attorney could ask: "Why didn't my child deserve the protection of compartmentalization?"
Former Gov. Pete Wilson signed a law requiring all large school buses manufactured after July 1, 2005, to include seat belts, Rybar said.
"Those actually keep the child in the compartmentalization," he said, "because they can't hang out in the aisle and wear a seat belt at the same time."
Escobar, Quinn's wife, said she is trusting in God that her son gets to school safely.
"I wish they would be a little more responsible with our children," she said, "because we are putting them in their hands, and they are charging us (for the bus service)."