Bus route computer capability at issue

Published Oct. 20, 2004|Updated Aug. 28, 2005

In Hillsborough County, the computer system used to select school bus stops is programmed to flag hazardous four-lane roads.

In Pinellas County, schools have the same system, though officials said last week it could not distinguish between two-lane and multiple-lane roads.

The designer of the system, Edulog, disagrees.

Company officials say school districts routinely program the system to flag hazardous multiple-lane roads. And a former school transportation official says that is how it worked in Pinellas County when he left the district in September of 2003.

Now, with the death of a 16-year-old Clearwater High School junior who was hit at a busy McMullen-Booth crossing, Pinellas school investigators are trying to learn whether the system was altered or ignored.

"I can't imagine there is any school district that doesn't designate hazardous roads," said Mike Olds, a marketing manager for Education Logistics Inc., the company that manufactures Edulog.

Edulog officials said this week that once the computer system is programmed to designate hazardous roads, someone would have had to override or cancel the warnings.

Pinellas School Board members, the district superintendent and transportation chief all say no student should have been dropped at a stop that requires crossing multiple lanes of traffic.

"An absolute tragedy happened in this district," School Board chairman Jane Gallucci said of the death last week of Rebecca McKinney. "Somewhere along the line, someone needs to be accountable for that child getting off on the wrong side of that road."

District officials have declined to answer questions about why Rebecca was dropped off on the wrong side of the road, or whether the computer system alerted them to the danger.

"Right now, we still haven't completed the investigation, and I'd rather not comment until we find out all the facts together," said School Board attorney John Bowen. "I don't want to say something until I'm sure of all the facts."

Superintendent Howard Hinesley said he did not know whether the computer system's hazard function was disabled.

In Hillsborough County, all multiple-lane roads are designated as hazardous, and no over- rides are permitted to allow a student to cross them, said Karen Strickland, general manager of Hillsborough's transportation department.

She said no major problems have been reported with the Edulog system since it was implemented at the beginning of this school year.

In Pinellas, the system worked the same way, at least until last year, said Tom Jacobs, a former bus routing supervisor and computer systems coordinator for the school district.

When he left the district in 2003, Jacobs said, McMullen-Booth Road was definitely among the roads flagged as hazardous.

"Either someone went through the extensive steps of doing an override, or the hazardous road function did not exist at the time (Rebecca) was assigned a bus stop," said Jacobs, who several years ago helped implement the latest version of the Edulog system in Pinellas.

Jacobs, who left the district on admittedly unhappy terms, said transportation chief Terry Palmer sent out a clear directive that no student should cross a multiple-lane highway.

But during a subsequent meeting in the summer of 2003, Jacobs said, route coordinators complained to Tom Reichert, transportation routing supervisor, that it would take too much work to change stops and routes to comply with Palmer's directive.

Reichert referred questions to district spokesman Ron Stone, who said the district will not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Hinesley said it would be unacceptable to disable the Edulog system's hazardous road function to avoid work or complications.

After the Oct. 8 accident, Hinesley gave transportation chief Palmer a directive to look at all current bus stops countywide to ensure no other students are crossing multiple-lane roads.

Several bus drivers and parents dispute the district's insistence that students have not been allowed to cross multiple lanes.

Some parents said it took the district several weeks to respond to complaints about their child crossing up to six lanes of traffic. Others said said they were rebuffed completely.

Sherry Massarro said she complained about several Countryside High School students who were dropped off in the same spot as Rebecca McKinney.

She said transportation officials told her last year that they could cross the road because they were high school students.

The stop stayed the same all last year, but was finally changed this year, about two weeks before Rebecca's accident, she said.

"I know I complained," Massarro said. "For them to say that changes are made if people complained, that's definitely not true."

Rebecca's bus driver last year, Bill Angelus, said he warned his supervisors on the first day of school that Rebecca and her brother and sister were being dropped at an unsafe stop on the wrong side of McMullen-Booth Road.

Angelus said Rebecca had given him a note, which he believed to be from her mother, granting permission for Rebecca to be dropped off on the east side of McMullen-Booth Road, rather than at a stop on the west side, where the child had been bullied and beaten up.

Angelus said he kept the note all year, then threw it out after the end of the school year.

Angelus said he told district officials his story earlier this week.

"The School Board has an obligation to keep these children safe," Angelus said. "If it's unsafe, I don't believe they should be there."

Rebecca's mother, Sally McKinney, could not be reached for comment.

But her attorney, Steve Yerrid of Tampa, says she denied Tuesday ever writing or signing a note that gave permission for her children to be dropped on the east side of McMullen-Booth Road.

She did, however, sign a note that gave her daughter permission to occasionally be dropped at her boyfriend's bus stop in Safety Harbor, Yerrid said.