WMC revisits Durham bus driver screening after Chattanooga tragedy

Published: Nov. 22, 2016 at 10:17 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 23, 2016 at 3:52 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - It was a fender-bender. About $400 in damages.

But that accident on a blind curve in Chattanooga two months ago may have given Durham School Services cause for pause on its young driver Johnthony Walker.

Walker, 24, is charged with vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving in the crash Monday that killed five Chattanooga-area students. Searches of national and Hamilton County, Tennessee, criminal records revealed Walker has no criminal history and no charge history -- not even a speeding ticket -- for motor vehicle violations. By record accounts, there would be no reason for Durham School Services not to pass him on a safety screening.

But Nashville TV station WSMV reported a state driving history record revealed Walker, while driving his Durham school bus, side-swiped a Kia Soul on a blind curve Sept. 20. The damage was $400, according to the report, and Hamilton County court records indicated Walker was never charged in connection with the crash.

Two months later, he's charged with the deaths of five children.

It got us revisiting the driver screening standards of Durham School Services, which is also the school bus contractor for Shelby County Schools and for the county's six municipal districts.

In the three years before the 2015-16 school year, Durham School Services averaged 83 accidents a year (251 crashes in three years), according to school district records. The records indicated Durham's drivers were at fault in more than half of those incidences. In the 2014-15 school year, the WMC Action News 5 Investigators documented nearly a half-dozen Durham drivers with drug or significant motor vehicle violations, resulting in their terminations.

The investigations led to Durham and the districts renegotiating their contracts with ambitious performance and safety standards, including GPS tracking systems required by contract in every bus, motor vehicle record checks every 60 days on active drivers and mandatory FBI background checks on new hires triple-checked by both Durham and the respective school district. The new standards made a difference. In the 2015-16 school year -- the first year of Durham's new contract with SCS -- there were 13 Durham school bus accidents.In nine of the crashes students were on board the bus, but not a single student suffered an injury that required hospitalization. Accident reports confirmed another driver was at fault in five of those accidents, while Durham drivers were at fault in two of the crashes. The responsible drivers in the remaining six accidents are unclear.

Despite the improvements in driver safety, SCS did withhold $675,000 in performance bonuses from Durham for its failure to meet benchmarks in accomplishing on-time pick-ups and maintaining an adequate surplus of drivers.

Shelby County Schools board member Chris Caldwell insisted Durham is honoring its contractual commitment to better driver screening. "Yes, at this point, and we're currently in negotiations with them, and in light of what has happened (in Chattanooga), we're doing everything we can to make sure they are qualified drivers," Caldwell said.

"Our process is the same as it has been," said Collierville Municipal Schools Superintendent John Aitken of the six municipal districts working with Durham to meet similar contractual obligations for screening drivers. "Out of respect for the grieving families who are dealing with a tragedy that is less than 24 hours old, I respectfully ask that all questions regarding this matter be referred to Durham."

Durham School Services spokesperson Molly Hart would not answer email questions about Durham's driver screening process. We were unable to ask Durham representatives whether they knew about Walker's fender-bender on Sept. 20. But company CEO David Duke issued a statement:  "Our entire team at Durham School Services is devastated by the accident yesterday that tragically claimed the lives of Chattanooga students. We are working with the Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County School District to investigate."

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