By Mike Elk
In an an interesting twist to an already complex case, Durham School Services is paying the legal defense of Johnthony Walker, the school bus driver charged with six counts of vehicular homicide in the deaths of six school children in Chattanooga according to a report in the Chattanooga Times-Free Pres. The private school bus operating company also continues to employ the 24-year-old Walker. The company has decided to pay for Walker’s legal counsel, Amanda B. Dunn, to represent him. On the other side of this is the parents who have been affected by their children’s deaths and may personally look at hiring the best lawyer to fight this case so that he or the school is held responsible for this accident.
Walker has indicated that he plans to plead not guilty. Durham School Services president and CEO David Duke even has publicly defended Walker against charges of vehicular homicide. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to get in an accident and hurt somebody today” Duke told a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.
Legal experts speculate that the decision for Durham to pay for Walker’s defense stems from their decision to clear their own legal liability. Already, three lawsuits have been filed against Durham accusing the firm of negligence in employing Walker. If Durham can help Walker beat legal charges then it makes it easier for the company to prove in later civil cases that it is not at fault.
The decision by Durham School Services to go to bat for their school bus drivers highlights what could become a blame game between the bus company and the school district over who is at fault for the accident.
Last week, the Hamilton County School District released more than 30 pages of complaints against Walker. These included letters and handwritten notes from children and parents accusing Walker of speeding and driving in an unsafe matter.
However, Durham School Services has claimed that a review of their system that they only received six complaints about Walker from the School District and only two of these complaints were related to speeding.
On October 28, Durham received a complaint that Walker was speeding while driving. Durham says that it checked the GPS unit on Walker’s bus and determined that he wasn’t speeding. Then, on November 2, Durham received a complaint from Woodmore Elementary School Principal Brenda Adamson-Cothran that he was speeding in the school loading zone. Durham claimed that they addressed the complaint and told Walker not to speed.
On November 16, Durham received another complaint that Walker was swerving while driving. However, Duke told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press they reviewed camera footage of the bus on November 18 and attributed the swerving to speed bumps.
Duke has repeatedly said that his company did not receive any further complaints from the Hamilton County school district about Walker’s unsafe driving. Duke said that the company did not receive any of the letters from parents or teachers.
“We don’t know what didn’t work,” Duke told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “We know what [complaints] we didn’t have.”
Walker, who only had three months experiences driving the bus, also had previously complained about unruly students on his bus. Despite being a rookie bus driver, Walker had no school bus monitor assigned to drive with him and frequently complained to the school district that the students were making it difficult for him to drive. According to Hamilton County School documents, Walker wrote about 10 students for unruly behavior, but the school district accused Walker of writing up too many students.
Durham School Services has said publicly that in meetings with Chattanooga area school bus drivers that many of them also complained about the School District doing little about discipline on the buses.
Nationwide, school bus drivers complain that a lack of school bus monitors makes it difficult and distracting for school bus operators to safely do their jobs. However, the Hamilton County school district only provides bus monitors on special education routes and occasionally on routes with bad discipline problems.
The latest round of accusations between Durham School Services and Hamilton County school district highlights what is likely to be a growing an attempt by each to blame the other for the accident. With Walker’s criminal proceedings slated to start on December 15, it is expected that the fireworks between Durham and Hamilton County will only intensify.
Mike Elk is an award winning labor reporter and a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO, a workplace safety expert at MSNBC, and as an investigative reporter at In These Times Magazine before founding Payday Report.