PBC public schools unplugged buses’ child alarms, then claimed they worked

An inspection of 89 buses in May found that more than half had child-safety alarms that didn’t work. (Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County’s public schools operated dozens of buses with disconnected child-safety alarms last year but claimed that the alarms were working, leaving student passengers without a key safeguard against being abandoned on board, a newly released school board audit shows.

An inspection of 89 of the school district’s more than 650 buses last May found that more than half had child-safety alarms that didn’t work, the school board’s inspector general found. Of the 89 buses examined, auditors found the alarms had been manually disconnected on 31, more than a third.

Yet as buses transported children with broken or disconnected alarms, most of the drivers and transportation officials responsible for inspecting them claimed in inspection reports that the alarms were in working condition, the inspector general found.

An example of a disconnected child-safety alarm on a Palm Beach County school bus. (Source: Palm Beach County School District)

The audit report does not indicate who disconnected the child safety alarms or whether transportation officials intentionally falsified inspection reports to conceal the fact that they weren’t working.

But the findings raise questions about whether drivers and inspectors conspired to deactivate a key child safety protection intended to prevent children from serious injury or death.

The alarms, which sound if drivers fail to walk to the back of the bus before shutting the engine off, are intended to prevent students from being accidentally abandoned on empty buses. State regulations require that they be installed on all buses built since 2005 — and be repaired if they are not working.

In October 2015, a bus driver and aide left an autistic 7-year-old boy from J.C. Mitchell Elementary alone on an empty bus for more than three hours. The child was later discovered at a bus compound by a mechanic, his pants wet with urine.

That bus had no child-safety alarm, but the driver and aide were supposed to do a visual check for children and hang an “EMPTY” sign on the rear window. They were later arrested on charges of child neglect.

In a statement, the school district said Friday that it did not know who was responsible for disconnecting the alarms but that “any employees found tampering with the systems will be disciplined.”

Afifa Khaliq, a spokeswoman for the bus drivers union, said it was unlikely that drivers were responsible for disconnecting the alarms. Most of them, she said, wouldn’t know enough about their buses’ electrical systems to do so, and many bus drivers had come forward last year to report that alarms weren’t working.

“It’s mostly the mechanics who know that stuff and they won’t disable it just to disable it,” she said. “It might be a situation where the mechanic disabled it because it just kept on ringing.”

The district said that it believes that only one bus currently has a broken child-safety alarm and that that bus is off the road.

Auditors with the inspector general’s office first discovered the problem last May, when they inspected 89 of the school district’s more than 650 buses and found 58 had non-functioning alarms. Concerned, they reported the findings to the school district’s transportation department in June.

Three months later, transportation officials assured the inspector general that most of the alarms had been fixed and that the few buses with malfunctioning alarms had been removed from service.

But when auditors returned a month later to inspect 61 buses being used at the time to transport children, they found that the alarms were not functioning on 13 of those 61 buses.

In all cases, drivers had marked the alarms as working in the daily inspection reports they are required to fill out.

Additionally, auditors found that the most recent monthly safety inspections for 11 of those 13 buses indicated that the alarms were working.

Since the revelations, the school district said that it has taken measures to avoid future efforts to disconnect the alarms.

Donald Fennoy, the school district’s chief operating officer, wrote in April to the inspector general that the transportation department has encased parts of the alarms into “an internal compartment so that the connectors are no longer exposed.”

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

In its statement, the school district said that new measures would help to ensure that inspection reports are truthful.

“Going forward, Transportation Services is changing its procedures so a foreperson has to physically inspect the bus to check the safety alarms and video systems before signing off on the inspection forms,” the district said.

 

 

 

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