A day after a Durango School District 9-R bus carrying 44 elementary schoolchildren rolled off Lightner Creek Road, enraged parents are demanding an answer about why an inexperienced driver was not taken off his route.
On Tuesday, the school bus did a complete rollover about 3:30 p.m. near the 900 block of Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207), a couple miles west of Durango. Ten children were taken by ambulance to Mercy Regional Medical Center with “mostly cuts and bruises,” according to Colorado State Patrol Capt. Adrian Driscoll.
Shortly after news of the accident broke, parents of Park Elementary School students spoke with The Durango Herald, saying injuries were far more serious than just minor bumps.
“I went by to visit the kids in the emergency room,” said Pamela Linsenmeyer, a teacher at Park Elementary whose child was on the bus. Linsenmeyer said she saw injuries that included a broken leg, broken clavicle, concussions and severe gashes.
Her own 10-year-old son suffered a laceration to his face and leg, which required nine stitches. Linsenmeyer kept her son home from school Wednesday, and when he does go to school Thursday, he won’t ride the bus.
“My child is traumatized,” she said. “And it was very scary as a parent. It traumatized all of us.”
Driscoll said he didn’t mean to diminish the harm the children suffered, but in emergency medical terms, “minor to moderate” injuries translate into nothing life-threatening.
However, the resounding question in the aftermath of the rollover is the driving record of the bus driver, which more than a half-dozen parents have said has been suspect in the past, and the district’s failure to take action after repeated complaints.
The driver, William J. Farley, 64, of Hesperus, was charged with careless driving, caused by distraction. On Wednesday, both Driscoll and school district spokeswoman Julie Popp declined to discuss any details of the accident, including Farley’s driving record or how long he’s been employed as a driver, citing an “open investigation.” Popp said the district plans to release information about the driver’s history, training, past incidents, among other details Thursday morning.
Superintendent Dan Snowberger announced Wednesday morning Farley would be placed on administrative leave while the State Patrol and the school district conduct an investigation into the incident.
Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office could not immediately say on Wednesday whether Farley has a history of driving infractions.
When reached at home Wednesday, Farley said he could not comment on particulars of the accident, but he expressed remorse.
“I love these kids,” he told The Durango Herald. “And it’s tearing me up.”
Parents, on the other hand, were highly critical. They cited two previous incidents with Farley at the wheel: a week ago when he drove the bus into a traffic sign, and then on Monday, when the bus hit a patch of ice and skidded into a ditch.
“It was just a mess,” said Daphine Brislin, a parent, referring to Monday’s accident. “It was a nightmare. The high school bus that comes right after did the appropriate turn and had no issues getting out of Durango West. He’s been a bad driver on this route.”
Brislin said her daughter, who rides the route, came home one day and compared Farley’s driving to that of her 16-year-old who is learning to drive. Brislin complained to the school district but didn’t have much luck.
“If you’ve had problems with this part of the route, why are you still allowing him to drive?” Brislin said in an interview with the Herald. “This guy keeps messing up, and he should have been pulled before the accident happen. If he’s not comfortable, put him on a different route. Things like that, to me, would have been better handled.”
It is not clear when Farley started driving the bus route because District 9-R would not release information Wednesday. But parents who spoke with the Herald estimated it was in the last week or two. They say many children are now frightened to ride the bus, leaving few options for parents.
“She’s scared to death of the bus right now,” Pat Scales said of his 8-year-old daughter, who was on the bus when it rolled. “Now, I’m the bus service. It’s a small price to pay, but still, it’s a price to pay.”
Scales’ daughter Madison recalled the horrifying account of the bus as it ran off the right side of the road and down a 30- to 40-foot embankment.
“I remember it rolling over once and everybody screaming,” the third-grade student said. “We went out the emergency exit in the back of the bus, and we just stayed together. Everybody was crying. I thought he was driving too fast.”
Madison sustained extensive bruises on her body and an injury to her head. Her father, who was taking Madison back to Mercy for a check-up Wednesday, said he is filled with a mix of horror and anger.
“The idea that anyone who’s had an accident in the first week or month, and is still retained, is shocking to me,” Scales said. “The road was bone dry, and the sun wasn’t an issue. I’m just floored they let a guy with prior accidents still drive. I don’t care how short-staffed they are.”
The last few years, District 9-R has faced a shortage of bus drivers. The district has had difficulty filling open driver positions – so much so that some school officials have been forced to take up driving routes.