Reacting to parents' anger over threats and obscene comments that a Coleytown Middle school bus driver is accused of making to students in October, the Westport school district will implement a new procedure for dealing with complaints about bus driver behavior.
That change, however, has failed to quell many parents' discontent about school officials' handling of the Oct. 18 incident -- concerns about student security that have grown after the shootings Friday that killed 20 first-grade students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
If school officials receive future reports of driver misconduct, they will convey those grievances by both phone and email to the bus terminal manager for DATTCO, the school district's New Britain-based transportation provider. Those communications will include "specific instructions" to immediately remove the driver from service until DATTCO, "in the presence" of the school district's transportation coordinator, has completed its investigation of complaints.
The bus driver in question -- Daniel Florio, 44, of Norwalk -- was charged by police last month with risk of injury to a child, threatening and breach of peace. DATTCO has since fired Florio.
The new reporting procedure for complaints about bus drivers is the main recommendation in a report released Monday by Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon on the incident reported aboard Bus 16. On the morning of Oct. 18, several students who ride the bus informed staff at Coleytown Middle School that the driver, Florio, had made "inappropriate comments" during the morning run, according to Landon's report. Coleytown Middle School Principal Kris Szabo then reported the students' complaints to Sandra Evangelista, the school district's transportation coordinator.
After she heard from Szabo, Evangelista called the DATTCO's bus terminal manager to report the students' accounts of the morning run, according to Landon's report. The bus terminal manager responded that DATTCO would "investigate the matter with the driver at the first opportunity" before Bus 16's afternoon run, Landon's report also states.
But DATTCO did not investigate the students' complaints about the morning run until Florio returned to the DATTCO bus terminal after finishing his afternoon run, according to Landon's report. The superintendent attributed that delay to Florio returning his bus after the morning run to the Imperial Avenue lot used during the day by many vehicles in the school district's fleet, instead of DATTCO's bus terminal. Following the afternoon run, the school district received complaints from parents about Florio; he was then removed by DATTCO from Westport school bus routes, Landon's report adds.
Despite his report's endorsement of the new, tougher measures for dealing with driver misbehavior, Landon defended officials' response to the alleged outbursts by Florio.
"There was, in my estimation, not a single violation of any of our board policies," Landon said during Monday's Board of Education meeting. "I also conferred with everyone involved from the school side and, as I reported earlier, I am fully satisfied that everyone on the Westport school staff who played a role in this matter acted appropriately."
Parents still unhappy
Landon and other top education officials have been vehemently criticized over the last two months by many of the parents whose children ride Bus 16 for letting Florio drive the afternoon run after he reportedly discussed his sex life and used profane language during the morning run. Florio then allegedly launched into another tirade during the Bus 16 afternoon ride, making intimidating remarks that caused many of the children to flee the bus in terror before their scheduled stops, according to students' accounts.
Details of Florio's alleged outbursts come solely from students' reports because Bus 16's surveillance camera was not working during the morning and afternoon runs Oct. 18.
"He was talking about `I don't have sex with 12-year-olds, I have sex with 25-year-olds,' and he's using extreme language, like saying `f---, s---,' " said Eileen Ludy, a Bus 16 parent. "This gets reported to the principal that morning and then he's left on that bus to drive those kids home that afternoon. ... I don't understand how you (Landon) can say you`re fully satisfied with what happened that day because my kid was a victim of a crime that day, because there was no followup."
Bus 16 parents also faulted DATTCO management for their response.
"This incident was preventable," said Christine Kurpiel. "Someone dropped the ball. And Dr. Landon's summary still leaves questions unanswered. One thing the summary does indicate is that DATTCO failed to investigate the driver or to take any action before the afternoon run. At this time, I think it's appropriate that we rethink our relationship with DATTCO. They have failed terribly at providing safe transportation for our children."
Landon's report does not criticize DATTCO's response to the incident. Instead, it lists the company's responsibilities and protocols, which include the hiring and supervision of its drivers and background checks of those employees. Those reviews include checks of state and federal fingerprints, in and out-of-state criminal and driving convictions, a national sex offenders website, the state Department of Children and Families, past employers' references, and drug and alcohol screenings, according to Landon's report.
DATTCO also provides "ongoing training and supervision of its drivers to ensure that all safety procedures involved with the driving of a bus and dealing with students are understood," according to Landon's report.
No complaints about Florio were made by students or parents before Oct. 18, Landon's report states.
Some Bus 16 parents' criticism in recent weeks has also focused on Evangelista's handling of the students' reports about Florio's threatening behavior.
"I thought she should be losing her job over this," said Jarret Liotta of Evangelista. "I would hope, at the very least, for a letter being put in her file or a serious reprimand. If you asked me who dropped the ball, it's pretty obvious." (Liotta is a contributor to the Westport News.)
Some Bus 16 parents said the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary had amplified their worries about the school district's vetting of bus drivers.
"In light of Friday's events, my thoughts over the weekend turned to concerns of the mental health status of the individual who was the driver," said Trish Boyle. "He clearly was kind of delusional, paranoid, behaving very oddly. I'd like to raise the concern about individuals such as this, who are working for the school, and then they're terminated or working for a subcontractor. There should be some monitoring and followup. That's on my mind. The guy knows where our kids live."
Board of Education members, meanwhile, have been reluctant at board meetings since Oct. 18 to comment on officials' response to Florio's reported misconduct. While board members asked a number of questions Monday night about the district's bus-safety measures, they generally did not offer direct opinions on the Bus 16 controversy. Elaine Whitney, the education board's chairwoman, on Monday closed discussion of the incident by thanking Landon for the recommendations in his report for "helping to ensure that an incident like this could be avoided in the future."
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