JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Three school bus whistleblowers question the safety of the company, saying they’re putting kids in danger. The three employees work for Student Transportation of America (STA), the company responsible for getting about 95,000 Duval County students to and from school safely. The whistleblowers said that isn’t happening because of mismanagement.
The company said its number one priority is safety, but these whistleblowers felt they had to speak. They tell Action News Jax they’ve never been more worried about child safety, breaking down into tears when they were talking about it.
One whistleblower said, “They don’t care about the students.” Another said the company is “unsafe; They’re unstaffed.” A third whistleblower said, “No matter how much (STA) preach(es) about how they are for safety and for the children, I absolutely do not believe that is the case.”
STA is one of the two companies contracted to drive school buses in Duval County. Action News Jax is concealing the whistleblowers’ identities because they’re worried about losing their jobs.
They paint a picture of regularly overcrowded busses, like the one Action News Jax first showed you in October. One said overcrowding is common.
“The school staff is begging me to try to squeeze more on because there’s no telling them when those children are going to get picked up,” she said, “These kids are, you know, are in jeopardy.”
Overcrowding is a violation of state law and a violation of the contract with Duval County Public Schools. So, we took our concerns directly to STA and sat down with Denis Gallagher, Vice President of Operations for the Southeast Region. When it comes to the overcrowded bus we reported in October, Gallagher said, “That video was shot while the bus was still at the school.” He said there is surveillance video to prove it but did not show us.
But when Action News Jax Investigator Emily Turner asked, “So every single one of your buses, a kid has an assigned seat, they’ve got a seat belt, they’re safely on the road?” Gallagher put the onus on DCPS and said, “The district is responsible for routing. They’re responsible for placing the kids on the bus.”
Then in November, Action News Jax showed you one neighborhood whose students were regularly late to school or simply couldn’t wait any longer for busses to arrive. The whistleblowers said STA directed drivers to leave students behind and circle back later to prevent overcrowding. They said every day, hundreds of children are left on the side of the road, sometimes, waiting for hours.
Even scarier, one whistleblower said, “Earlier, when school first started, a couple of drivers came across the radio -- and they still do -- saying that they got suspicious cars at their stops. Then you have the children out there ... it’s hard.”
It isn’t just dangerous, Action News Jax found it violates the company’s contract with DCPS. Bus drivers are contracted to get students to school 15 minutes before the bell. I asked the whistleblowers, “How often are you later than that?” One of them answered, “Way, way later by a longshot.”
But STA’s Gallagher paints a different picture. “So far this year,” he said, “we’re operating at 90% on time.”
He said he’d provide paperwork to back up that claim. Action News Jax is still waiting. But we received a form from a corporate media rep that read in part, ”On-time rate is a number that we calculate, at set times during the year, using several different data points. The number we provided is based on an analysis of raw internal data and information from the district’s director of transportation.”
Meanwhile, the whistleblowers say students are still waiting every day, on multiple routes and the company has failed to fix the issue.
“There’s too much,” one whistleblower said, “It’s so chaotic, and it’s ridiculous, and it frustrates me.”
Another said the company is in this position because, “they can’t retain nor hire anyone because the atmosphere is very negative.”
Staffing is another contractual issue. According to its contract, STA must “continuously perform … at full capacity.”
Gallagher acknowledges this is a problem. “Driver shortage,” he said, “is the greatest challenge in the industry today.”
Action News Jax obtained personnel lists that show the company employs about 100 fewer people now than it did two years ago, despite the company’s own claim its actively recruiting and offering bonuses.
Whistleblowers say it causes chaos at drop-off and pick-up.
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“I wish you could hear that radio,” she said, “over and over and over and over and over, calling, trying to get routes covered. ‘Can you do this? Can you do that? No, I need you to go do this. No, turn around and go there.’”
Another said the company doesn’t care, “As long as, the children get to school, when they DO get to school. They don’t care.”
Action News Jax will continue to follow the issues facing your students getting to and from school. If you have any information, email Emily at firstname.lastname@example.org.