3 Investigates: Hamilton County school bus complaints, responses - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

3 Investigates: Hamilton County school bus complaints, responses

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

It's been three months since the deadly Woodmore school bus crash that killed 6 young children. Channel 3 uncovered several complaints about the driver, Johnthony Walker, that were filed before that crash happened launching a months long investigation into other routes in the school district. 

Channel 3 got a look at every complaint filed between the start of school last fall to the month the Woodmore crash happened.

800 pages were filed by 200 concerned parents, students, school employees and residents along bus routes.

On average, that's one per school bus.

Amy Katcher, the spokesperson for the school district, said that number is not alarming. 

County buses transport 20,000 students, make 9,500 stops and travel nearly 20,000 miles each day. 

"We're talking about a lot of buses making a lot of stops. We wish there weren't any complaints, but unfortunately we know complaints will happen," Amy Katcher of Hamilton County Schools said.

Channel 3 wanted to know where the most complaints were filed and how bus officials responded.

The top offender was bus 361 with 10 complaints, which serves the East Brainerd area. Channel 3 found complaints ranging from the driver running late to expressing being overwhelmed by the job.

On August 22nd, a woman allegedly witnessed the driver breaking traffic laws by rolling through a red light when making a right turn.

Hamilton County's transportation director, Ben Coulter, said he would look into this, but there is no record of corrective measures.

Bus 366, the one involved in the Woodmore bus crash, also logged 10 complaints. 

On November 16th, Woodmore Elementary's principal emailed saying several students reported the driver "swerving and purposely trying to cause them to fall."

In this case, Coulter asked Durham to pull bus video to investigate the claim.

Bus 379, which transports Red Bank students, came in third with 7 complaints ranging from overcrowding concerns to unsafe driving.

On September 8th, the principal from Red Bank Middle School told the transportation director about students reporting the driver slammed the brakes and may have had his cell phone out.

Coulter also forwarded that concern to Durham.

"We take every complaint we receive seriously. You got to remember a complaint is an allegation and a lot of times, an investigation must be completed," Katcher said.

The drivers for bus routes 361 and 366 have since been replaced. A spokeswoman for Durham said the driver of bus 379 is still behind the wheel.

Channel 3 followed bus 361, which tied for the most complaints, to talk with parents along the route including a mom of a 7-year-old at East Brainerd Elementary.

"If it was an option, my daughter would not even be on that bus," Keshia Wilson, a parent said.

Wilson said she voiced concerns about her daughter's bus driver speeding and not arriving on time in November. She takes those concerns more seriously after the Woodmore crash. 

"I just couldn't imagine, you know, if something was to happen to my child just because someone's not taking their job seriously. I mean it's scary," Wilson said.

In the days following Woodmore, the school system saw an uptick in complaints from moms like Wilson. They saw more than double from the month before.

"I think folks are being vigilant and maybe before they wouldn't say anything, now they are," Katcher said.

The school's transportation director could not speak on camera with Channel 3 or comment on the complaints filed about Johnthony Walker due to pending litigation, but Katcher said the district weighs all complaints the same. There is no ranking system. 

The county defers to Durham to take action against its drivers and that is where the paper trail ends.

Katcher said for the school system or Durham to look into an issue, it has to be reported.

Keshia Wilson said she's keeping a close eye on her child's bus and won't hesitate to pick up the phone. 

"When you drive a bus route, it's not really a job. I mean you have a lot of little lives in your hands whenever you're driving," Wilson said.

DRIVER STATUS

Bus 361 - Replaced

Bus 366 - Replaced

Bus 379 - Same Driver

RESOURCES

As for resources available for parents, they can call or email the school system with bus complaints. A complaint form is also available at the district's transportation office on Dodds Avenue.

After the Woodmore crash, Durham launched a cloud-based system that allows administrators, transportation staff, or Durham personnel to report complaints directly to the company.

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