By Mike Elk
Today in Chattanooga, a new federal class action lawsuit has been filed, charging that the Hamilton County School District and Durham School Services violated student’s constitutional rights through the district’s bus outsourcing scheme, which it says resulted in the deaths of 6 school students. The lawsuit is the first lawsuit to directly allege that the School District’s outsourcing plan is legally responsible for the deaths of six students, who died in a tragic accident shortly before Thanksgiving.
“The school bus operation has been outsourced to balance the books of the school district” charges the lawsuit filed in federal court in Chattanooga today. “To maximize profit, the contractor overcrowded routes and offered school bus drivers low pay, few hours, and inadequate driver training and support. To avoid a self-created driver shortage, as they had experienced in other markets, the contractor sought out the most poorly trained, inexperienced, and poorly-qualified drivers to transport the most precious commodity of this community”
The filing was the first lawsuit to be filed in federal court. Unlike prior lawsuits over the student’s deaths filed in state court, the lawsuit filed in federal court would not be subject to Tennessee’s recent tort law reform, which caps most non-economic damages at $750,000. The case was filed on behalf of a child injured in the crash by his parents Sharonda Covington and Derick Stepp. They are represented by the firm of Berke, Berke, Berke of Chattanooga and the firm of Murphy, Falcon, and Murphy out of Baltimore.
The firm of Murphy, Falcon, and Murphy is a major national civil rights firm, which successfully represented the Freddy Gray family in its wrongful-death lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department. As well, the firm is currently representing the residents of Flint, Michigan in a class action lawsuit against the local and state governments for failing to provide safe drinking water. The lawsuit draws on similar civil rights precedents of both the Flint water case and Freddie Gray case that the government failed to protect the lives of its students.
The suit draws on the federal civil rights statute “Section 1983”, which is most commonly used in police brutality cases. The lawsuit alleges that school district and its subcontractor Durham School Services failed to protect the physical safety of the students by cutting corners on safety in pursuit of profit. In knowingly ignoring warnings from both students and the bus driver that conditions on the bus were unsafe, the suit alleges that students were willfully denied their civil rights to being safely transported to school.
“[Durham School Services] was an equal partner with the school district in this joint endeavor, and each stood to profit from the cost-savings” alleges the lawsuit. “As such, the school district agreed to give the private contractor an equal voice in any rule, regulation, or policy incidental to the operation of its school buses. But in an effort to ensure these cost reductions continued, the school district and the contractor created and fostered an atmosphere wherein they were deliberately indifferent to bus drivers’ violations of the very regulations, rules, and policies they had established – even when doing so meant placing the young children aboard those school buses at great risk.”
Durham School Services contract with Hamilton County School District is set to expire in June of 2017. The suit is likely to add to the chorus of voices calling for the school to reform its outsourcing practices.
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. In 2015, using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing at POLITICO, he founded Payday Report in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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