Parents rip school officials' response to bus driver outburst
Published 5:59 am, Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Parents of Coleytown Middle School students who reported a profane and sexually charged outburst by their bus driver last Thursday are lambasting how school administrators handled the incident, telling the Board of Education on Monday the school district's transportation coordinator failed to respond to their children's concerns about the driver before he erupted.
The driver has been suspended in the wake of the incident while education officials investigate his reported misconduct. Westport police are also investigating complaints filed about the driver's behavior. The driver's name has not been disclosed by school officials or police.
But several parents of Coleytown students on the bus expressed anger at Monday night's board meeting that school officials did not act sooner. They reported that the driver made inappropriate comments about his sexual experience and students' sexual activity during the bus No. 16 route last Thursday morning. Students told Coleytown Middle School officials about the driver's comments and those reports were then forwarded that morning to the school district's transportation coordinator, Sandra Evangelista, according to the children's parents.
Evangelista called DATTCO, the school district's transportation provider, to ask the company's management to speak with the driver, according to the parents. But she did not notify parents about the driver's behavior on the Thursday morning run; did not ask that the driver be removed, pending a full investigation, and she did not follow up later in the day with DATTCO management or Coleytown Middle School's principal, Kris Szabo, the parents claimed.
"I find it reprehensible that Sandra Evangelista, your coordinator of transportation, did not do everything in her power to ensure that this man would not be driving that afternoon bus run," said Jarret Liotta, one of the parents. "Despite the fact that this was, in her words, only the second time in her nine years on the job that she has ever fielded a complaint relating to sexual impropriety -- one that came from a school principal -- she made only one phone call in the morning to DATTCO and did nothing to follow up."
Liotta also called for Evangelista's replacement as transportation coordinator and for the school district to try to bar the driver from driving students in Westport or any other town again. (Liotta is a writer and also a contributor to the Westport News.)
Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon, however, defended Evangelista and disputed a claim by Liotta that she had not returned Liotta's phone calls.
"In the 12 years or so in which I've worked with Ms. Evangelista, I think the charge that she doesn't respond to phone calls is totally without substance," Landon said. "In fact, it's an exaggeration of truth. And I think that's very, very unfortunate that such a comment could be made. Our transportation department has worked overtime to address parental concerns of any nature. Once this investigation is complete, we will have a full report for the board."
"That's completely unfair to now accuse me of lying," Liotta replied. "I made two separate calls about two different incidents and never had my calls returned."
Roberta Farrell, another of the bus No. 16 parents who spoke at Monday's meeting, reported that the driver's profanity, sexual references and bullying tone during the afternoon route unsettled many of the students so much that they got off the bus before their scheduled stops, with many of them moved to tears. She also told board members that children slouched down in their seats to be "invisible" and moved closer to the emergency exits to prepare for a quick departure from the bus.
Parents who met the bus seeking information about their children's whereabouts or the cause of the students' crying were yelled at by the driver, who "abruptly slammed the door in their faces," she said.
Farrell called for any "escalation" indicated by a school principal regarding incidents that were sexual in nature or judged violent or potentially violent to be given a "high priority" by the district's transportation coordinator. She also recommended that such reports merit the "immediate, temporary removal" of a driver from his or her route, pending a full investigation.
"The number-one focus of the coordinator of transportation should be on the safe transportation of our children," Farrell added. "Instead, greater focus was placed on the outsourced driver's right to transport our children."
Christine Kurpiel, the parent of another student on the bus, recommended the school district examine its procedure for handling complaints about bus drivers and its vetting process for drivers and consider reviewing its contract with DATTCO.
Eileen Ludy, the fourth and final parent who spoke Monday, suggested that Szabo should have had the authority to pull the bus No. 16 driver from his route before he made the afternoon run.
None of the parents who spoke Monday reported that the driver physically harmed or touched any students on the bus. They also indicated they had heard no troubling reports about the driver before last Thursday.
Acting Board of Education Chairman Jim Marpe, the only member of the board to comment on the incident, described it as a "sensitive issue."
A "number of people" of people have been named as witnesses in the police investigation, police Capt. Sam Arciola told the Westport News on Friday.
"We are working closely with the Board of Education and DATTCO and will take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation," Arciola said.
The school district so far has not made Evangelista available for comment about her response to the reported misconduct by the bus No. 16 driver.
A spokesman for DATTCO, the school district's transportation provider, did not respond to a request for comment by the Westport News.
"If, in fact, we find the situation is such that he [the driver] engaged in unacceptable behavior, he'll never work for the school district and never work for DATTCO again," Landon told the Westport News after Monday's meeting.
firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott