APS renews Herrera firm’s contract despite parents’ concerns
Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
One bus driver urinated in a bucket in front of schoolchildren and another blindfolded special needs students to avoid seeing them “staring,” according to the children’s parents.
Although the Herrera bus company drivers involved in those two incidents have since been fired, one mother asked the Albuquerque Public Schools board earlier this week not to renew the district’s contract with Herrera.
The board voted Wednesday to approve Herrera’s contract for the coming school year, however, and administrators cited the company’s responsiveness to the complaints as a reason Herrera deserves APS’ continued business.
Melissa Carrasco told the board her two special needs children were mistreated by a Herrera bus driver. She asked the board to hold off renewing its contract with the company or to examine Herrera’s hiring practices if they did renew it.
Mark Fine, an attorney who represents the Carrascos in a tort claim against Herrera, also drafted a letter to board members, formally making a similar request.
Carrasco’s daughters were allegedly blindfolded because the driver “did not like to see them staring,” according to Fine’s letter. A bus aide also allegedly hit one of the girls’ seats repeatedly because she liked to scare her. Both girls have a congenital disorder that results in physical and cognitive disabilities.
According to a letter to the board from Herrera’s lawyer, Jason Bowles, the driver and aide involved in that incident admitted to the allegations and have since been fired. The letter calls their actions “undoubtedly inappropriate and reprehensible.”
Bowles also wrote, “Herrera Inc. does not tolerate abuse by any of its employees and works hard to ensure that the students are protected and well taken care of.”
The company is one of 16 contractors that transport students for APS. Herrera’s contract for the coming year is for $4.7 million.
Fine’s letter includes stories from two other families whose special needs students were allegedly mistreated by Herrera employees. Angie Griego, for example, said her special needs son saw a driver’s genitals while the driver was urinating in a bucket on the bus.
According to Bowles’ letter, the driver was in his 80s and could not control his bladder. He was fired after the incident.
Griego said in an interview she feels drivers aren’t adequately trained to work with special needs students.
“These bus drivers are not trained whatsoever to take care of kids with disabilities,” she said. “None of them know their (individual education plan), their diagnosis, they have no clue what goes on with these kids. It’s a safety issue for all of us.”
Bus drivers who transport students with disabilities receive required training from the special education department at APS. District spokesman Rigo Chavez said the trainings are scheduled regularly and are tailored to reflect the kinds of disabilities the drivers will encounter on their particular routes.
APS Superintendent Winston Brooks told the board Herrera has responded appropriately to the incidents.
“I’m certainly not trying to defend the bus company employees – they’ve been horrendous – but I will say Herrera has taken quick action and, in my opinion, appropriate action on all of these employees,” Brooks said. “So that’s why we continue to recommend the Herrera bus company have their contract extended.”
Board Vice President Kathy Korte said during the board meeting that bus contractors struggle to retain quality drivers. Korte has been involved in several meetings with contractors, who have told her drivers often leave for higher paying jobs after receiving training from school bus companies. She said only about 40 percent of the drivers who are hired and trained actually stay with the companies long term.
“When you’re constantly seeing that kind of movement among the bus drivers themselves, it’s very very difficult to keep really good people in our buses,” Korte said, adding that she is sympathetic to families whose students have been mistreated.
The letter from Fine also describes the case of another student, who has autism. The letter says the boy’s femur was broken while on the bus, and his family believes it was broken while an aide was shoving his shoes back on, having grown frustrated with him for taking them off.
The letter from Bowles said there is no update available in that case, because the special education coordinator is out of town.
According to Fine’s letter, many children with special needs are unable to express themselves, making it hard to know how many incidents have gone unreported.
“What may be most haunting about this rash of child abuse by Herrera Inc. employees is the prospect that other APS special needs students have been similarly victimized but, due to their disabilities, are unable to report the misconduct,” Fine wrote in the letter.