LUTZ — Just before 4:30 p.m. Feb. 15, school bus No. 4714 pulled off from Martinez Middle School in Lutz. Students were eager to start a three-day holiday weekend. On the bus, a boy sprayed Axe body deodorant.
The kids say it was all downhill from there. They say their substitute driver stopped the bus, demanded to know who sprayed the fragrance, returned them to Martinez and refused to drive them home.
While no one in the school district would comment for this story, students and their parents describe a tense afternoon in which substitute driver Cynthia Palori repeatedly resisted driving 65 children through the streets of northwest Hillsborough. They say several administrators implored her to drive, and that she did not do so until ordered by a direct supervisor.
The children arrived home safely, about an hour late. In the process, one child lost his iPod. His parents have filed a sheriff's complaint. They are asking questions, as parents often do in a bureaucracy that struggles each day to transport thousands of children to hundreds of schools.
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A video recording exists of the Feb. 15 bus ride, but schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said it is "confidential, a student record." While declining, as other officials did, to discuss this incident, Hillsborough transportation general manager John Franklin said the district has 963 full-time drivers to shuttle 91,000 students to and from school. It needs 136 more.
"We want extremely safe individuals behind the wheel, individuals with safe driving records," Franklin said. "That can be a challenge."
The starting pay for drivers is $10.65 an hour. The highest it can ever go is $19.50. And they must have a knack for dealing with kids. The district pairs successful, tenured drivers with struggling and sometimes less-experienced ones to teach them everything from seating assignments to identifying disruptive students. "Every one of our drivers goes through a number of hours of training that help them learn student management techniques," Franklin said.
Cynthia Palori's personnel file is 27 pages long. Nothing in it hints at problems on the job. She applied to be a bus driver in 2000 after stints as a manager at a gas station and a hostess at a Shoney's. From work habits to attitude, bosses gave her "satisfactory" ratings, the highest possible.
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Students say Palori was clearly distraught the day she returned them to Martinez. On cell phones, they called relatives. "We have a crazy bus driver," eighth-grader Ryan Astorquiza said he told his mom in a phone message. "Call me if you get this."
Administrators tried to quiet the bus. One by one they urged Palori to drive the kids home. When she finally agreed, the kids had been on the idle bus 35 minutes. "We were all really tired," eighth-grader Vanessa Jones said. "We just wanted to get home."
Vanessa and Ryan didn't get there until about 6 p.m. School ended at 4:15. Bob Norman, whose seventh-grader was on the bus, asked Palori for an explanation.
"Talk to my supervisor," he says she told him. She slammed the door and accelerated, he said.
When Bob Norman and his wife, Sharon Wyatt-Norman, found out details of that day, Wyatt-Norman called, e-mailed and met with school administrators and transportation officials. She also filed a sheriff's report against Palori for petty theft.
Before Palori left Martinez the second time, she told Ryland Norman to fork over his $240 iPod. He'd get it back at his stop. Palori and the assistant principal assured Ryland of that, he said. In his haste to leave the bus, Ryland forgot the iPod. The district told the family they didn't know where the iPod was and would not replace it. A sheriff's investigation is pending.
Something else bothers Bob Norman. "I'm concerned that (Palori) was encouraged to go back on the road in her state by school administrators," he said. "If she's in that state, should she be driving kids around?"
While declining to answer that question, Franklin wrote in an
e-mail that his department "reacts appropriately to the many different situations that accompany the challenge of transporting 91,000 students on (a) daily basis."
Ryland's parents said the district assured them Palori would never drive Ryland's bus route again.
"That's all well and good," Wyatt-Norman said. "However, she's driving somebody else's kids."
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Ryland and his classmates waited on the corner for the bus to Martinez. It was 8:07 a.m. on Feb. 19, the day after the long holiday weekend.
Nearly a half-hour passed. No bus. A parent called downtown to see when to expect one. Wyatt-Norman stood nearby.
"Basically, someone got on the phone and said, 'We don't have a bus coming. If you guys want a bus to come, it will be a while.' "
It was 8:40. The school day started at 9. "Climb in guys," Wyatt-Norman told the children. "We'll get you to school."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at (813) 269-5303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.