Approximately 19,000 students are bused to and from classrooms each day on school buses around the Coachella Valley, and an I-team investigation reveals the information every parent or guardian needs to know about the safety and maintenance of those buses.
All three local school districts earned 'satisfactory' marks on their two most recent California Highway Patrol Terminal Inspections. However, CHP examiners did note concerns with some buses and drivers.
I-Team investigator Jeff Stahl requested detailed CHP school bus inspection reports for the past two years for all three local school districts including the Coachella Valley Unified School District, the Desert Sands Unified School District, and the Palm Springs Unified School District. He also asked their transportation heads what they’re doing to keep kids safe while riding school buses.
California Highway Patrol spokesman Brian Pennings said, "We'll go out and we will, we will inspect these buses and make sure that everything is in compliance.”
"We don't tell them which buses we're going to randomly select. They have no idea." "It is very very rare to not find anything at all. Nobody's perfect."California Highway Patrol spokesman Brian Pennings
Pennings says the CHP inspects every school bus every year and also conducts a comprehensive bus terminal inspection at least once every 13 months. It’s state law. Heavy vehicle inspectors meticulously examine a randomized 20 percent sample of each district’s bus fleet while also looking at driver records.
“We don't tell them which buses we're going to randomly select," said Pennings. "They have no idea,” Pennings added, "It is very, very rare to not find anything at all. Nobody's perfect.”
COACHELLA VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
Some history first. Four years ago, the I-team uncovered a 2019 failed Terminal Inspection Report of the Coachella Valley Unified School District's bus fleet.
At the time, CHP inspectors noted buses that failed to comply with the California Paul Lee Safety law SB 1072 which requires child safety alert systems on all buses. Lee was a student with special needs who died in 2015 after being left unattended on a Whittier school bus. The law was passed two years after his death.
Other district violations in 2019 included buses more than 150 days past their mandated state inspections, drivers who worked too many hours, and one who drove students to summer school despite knowing the bus he was driving had steering defects.
We met with CVUSD Fleet Services Supervisor Antonio Murillo who took us on buses and demonstrated the child safety alarm. He said, "Say you don’t go over and check for kids and you hit the door. You hear this alarm. Then the horn honks.” The alarm is loud and hard to ignore meaning students are unlikely to be left aboard a bus now.
The district's two most recent terminal inspection reports both were "satisfactory." It's a big improvement for the district. Still, like our other local school districts, inspectors in March did find some more minor violations. Two driver violations and 21 equipment violations were noted. Two buses were missing child safety alert systems. No buses were ordered out of service.
Asked about how they address issues they discover or are made aware of, Murillo said, "We write it down. We order the parts and then we get it fixed as soon as we can," adding "We're not going to risk the kids lives or even the drivers or other people on the road."
Murillo says safety is his crew's "main priority.”
READ THE ENTIRE CVUSD 2023 TERMINAL INSPECTION REPORT
PALM SPRINGS UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
At the other end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District contracts with First Student Transportation Services for its school bus transportation needs.
First Student declined to share its inspection documents with News Channel 3. An email reply from a First Student representative said that, as a private company, it did not have to provide them. A spokeswoman did provide a statement which read in part, "At First Student, we perform daily mechanical checks and regular preventive maintenance on all vehicles to ensure they operate safely."
The CHP ultimately provided the documents we examined for this report, upon our I-team open records request for First Student inspection reports for its Palm Springs maintenance facility. It's located on Calle San Raphael just east of Gene Autry Trail, a few blocks south of the Palm Springs Unified School District Education Center.
First Student received a “satisfactory” mark on its most recent December 15, 2022, CHP Terminal Inspection report. 20 of its 99 buses at two Palm Springs locations found no violations in maintenance, driver records, or hours of service requirements. However, two buses had no working horns. Another had loose and torn seat cushions-- violations not considered serious enough to order them off the road until repaired. Its previous state Terminal Inspection Report in 2021 was also marked as "satisfactory," according to the CHP.
“At First Student, student safety is our first priority,” said Todd Hawkins, First Student’s Senior Vice President of Maintenance. “This report showed our vehicles are safe and well maintained, meeting the safety criteria in every category reviewed by the California Highway Patrol.”
READ THE ENTIRE FIRST STUDENT PALM SPRINGS DEC 2022 TERMINAL INSPECTION REPORT
DESERT SANDS UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
In the Desert Sands Unified School District, a February 9, 2023, CHP Terminal Inspection was also marked “satisfactory,” as was the year before. Still, inspectors documented 7 driver violations and 17 equipment violations while examining 20 of its 102 bus fleet.
One of the most serious findings the report noted was a bus with a missing leaf spring along an axle that had separated. A part of it was missing from the main assembly. The CHP inspector took that bus out of service.
A second bus had a rapidly deflating flat tire. It was also taken out of service until repaired. One bus had a steering violation where a front tire was rubbing against drag-link steering components during turns. One bus was operated for 18 days while overdue for a required 3,000-mile inspection.
A driver failed to keep a proper log of his duty hours while driving a two-day field trip to San Diego without logging his prior seven days worked. Three defective first aid kits were not documented on daily condition reports by drivers along with defective emergency door instructions, a defective rear window, and a defective fuel-filling receptacle. It was loose. One bus was missing a child check alarm.
DSUSD Transportation Operations Supervisor Jessica Koahou said the district is working with drivers to better maintain their logs.
Koahou said, “We want to make sure that we get satisfactory. That's a big deal. But we also want to make sure that we're safe for our kids because our children are on the bus as well.”
How does the district address those concerns when they’re raised, and prevent others? DSUSD Director of Transportation Chuck Labrusky said, "There's a lot of different things that can happen. Again, the CHP if they really thought it was, you know, I mean, they would they would mark this down if they really thought it was something that tremendous.”
"We take the safety of our buses, and the maintenance of our buses, very seriously."DSUSD Director of Transportation Chuck Labrusky
Labrusky says the district has also added new software to better track bus scheduled maintenance and routine inspection timelines. "We take the safety of our buses, and the maintenance of our buses, very seriously," Labrusky added, "We have eight mechanics here and they do a great job."
The Desert Sands website says its transportation department "is an important part of the Educational process,” and “the first and last link between the student and the district.” Those sentiments are echoed by the other districts we spoke to. CVUSD’s website now says “Safety is our priority.” Palm Springs Unified's website says that the district's main goal is “to provide safe and timely transportation for our students each morning and afternoon.”
READ THE ENTIRE DSUSD 2023 TERMINAL INSPECTION REPORT
Pennings says buses are one of the safest forms of transportation and near and dear to his heart because they're hauling our precious cargo. He says that's why the state is very strict in enforcement and inspections for school buses, and they want to keep it that way.