Friday, May 15, 2009

Day Nine: After Nine Days, The Coroners Jury Comes In With Its Recommendations

Plenty has happened since witness testimony ended at 2:30 pm on Wednesday, May 13. We didn't get a chance to post our thoughts to the blog that night because we were exhausted, but today, May 15th, we're going to recap everything that happened since then.

The most important thing that has happened since Wednesday is that the Jury came in with its Recommendations on Thursday, May 14 at 2 pm, nearly 24 hours after formal testimony closed and they convened for their deliberations.

One Hour's Notice

We were told to expect one hour's notice from the Coroner so we were up first thing on Thursday and for the first time we didn't have to go to the courthouse at 9 am. We thought we might get a chance to catch up on the Van Angels website but it seemed that before you knew it, the phone call came at 1 pm to go to the Bathurst courthouse for 2 because the Jury had finished its deliberations.

The courtroom was tense as families, friends, the public and the media gathered to hear the Jury's recommendations. The first two rows were filled once again with parents and relatives and everyone was quiet. You could hear a pin drop in the courtroom.

We didn't know what to expect: were they going to listen to the parents' recommendations that we delivered as a group on Wednesday?

Jury Foreman Jeff Causey Reads the Recommendations

Jury Foreman Jeff Causey read the recommendations, and one by one we breathed a sigh of relief as we realized they actually listened to what we had to say and acted upon the witness testimony which laid bare for the world to see the incompetence and gross negligence of the Department of Education.

It was an almost surreal experience to be sitting there, almost 16 months to the day that our boys were killed, and to hear a Coroners Jury affirm what we had been saying all along. And although we wanted to hear that this tragedy should have been prevented, we knew that the Jury would not have been allowed to say that it was preventable. If they had, it would have been "laying blame" and the Coroner would have removed any such statement from their recommendations before they were announced from the floor of the courtroom.

Fourteen which was ours were included on the list. The Jury knew what was important and made the right recommendations.

Other recommendations we don't have enough information to base an opinion on: for example, District 15 transportation policies which were included are an unknown to us. We have not seen their draft District 15 student tranportation policy documents and know nothing about what they contain so we cannot comment. But we can assure you that if their policy documents say that school children are to be transported by Class 4 drivers they are going to have a fight on their hands.

We Were Right

We were right when we said that the Department of Education had to take full responsibility for children who are being transported to off-site, extra-curricular activities. The Department hasn't taken responsibility for children taking part in extra-curricular activities for nearly 30 years, when they cutbacks that resulted in the creation of companies like Bathurst Van Inc. in 1983. They invented a class of vehicle that fit nowhere in the definition of Commercial or Passenger Vehicle so that they could do as they pleased when it came to inspections, maintenance and driver qualifications.

We were right, when we said that only Class 2 yellow school bus drivers with a "B" and "E" endorsement should be allowed to transport children using the new Mutli-Function Activity Vehicles. The testimony of Mr. Lord on the first day of the Inquest, as well as that of Mr. McKay and Mr. Robichaud gave a chilling picture of the complete lack of driver training and ignorance of the guidelines, policies and regulations of Education Act and the Motor Vehicle Act.

We were right when we said that coaches, teachers, parents and volunteers should not be driving children to off-site, extra-curricular events.

We were right when we said that there has to be a bad weather law so that children are not transported to off-site extra-curricular activities in bad weather.

We were right when we said that there should be a ban on using 15-passenger and 7-passenger vans for transporting children to off-site, extra-curricular events.

We were right when we said that the employees of the Department of Education should be reprimanded or dismissed for failing to fulfill their duties - unbelievable that a Coroners Jury had to actually recommend that the Superintendent, the Principal, and Vice-principals be held accountable for failing to do the job they are paid to do. It is a sad state of affairs when we have come to this.

Among the 24 recommendations, the jury is calling for:

* There should be external audits to monitor compliance of schools and school districts in their implementation of Department of Education Policies 512 and 513. (The policies detail safety regulations for vehicles used to transport students to activities and the requirements for drivers.);

* Hosting schools should have contingency kits available with basic overnight supplies (air mattresses, bedding) should the weather change and hotels or home billets are not available. Hosting schools should be prepared to house a visiting team in the school if necessary;

* All travelling school teams and activity groups should carry with them written contingency binders that include contact information for hotels in all the communities to which they may be travelling, AMEC weather contact information and a current list of the names of schools' vice-principals and principals, the district's transportation manager, director of education, director of finance and administration and the superintendent;

* There should be a concerted effort by high schools and by the New Brunswick Interscholastic Activities Association to create schedules that minimize winter travel;

* The Department of Education should take full responsibility for the safety of children travelling to off-site extra-curricular events when they are representing their schools;

* Nothing less than a qualified Class 2 yellow school bus driver with endorsements for school buses and air brakes should be used for travel to off-site extra-curricular events. Teachers, coaches and parents, as well as volunteers, should not drive children to off-site events;

* A weather law should be enacted preventing students from being transported to off-site extra-curricular events in bad weather. If there is a storm alert, a game should be cancelled. If the weather changes at destinations, students should stay overnight;

* Fifteen-passenger and seven-passenger vans should be banned for student travel across Canada. Only yellow school buses and multi-function activity vehicles (mini buses) should be used;

* The minimum standard on tire tread depth has to be raised to a minimum of 4/32nds and tread depth should be measured across the full width of the tread. Clients should be advised by written recommendation that their tires are approaching replacement time;

* Drivers should drive no more than 14 hours;

* A process should be put in place so that persons employed by the Department of Education who fail to fulfil their duties as outlined in the guidelines, policies and regulations of the department are reprimanded. The reprimand should be recognized and serve as a reminder to other staff that they must do their job or be confronted with a reprimand or dismissal, if need be;

* The maintenance of highway edge drops should be kept seamless at all times, therefore no edge drop;

* All vehicles transporting students must have winter tires; should not be up to student representative councils to pay for multi-functional activity vehicles or for their maintenance. That should be paid for by the province. Student councils also should not have to pay the drivers of multi-functional vehicles if the recommendation for mandatory bus drivers for these vehicles is passed;

* There should be an activity organizer committee in place that would involve parents in planning travel for school activities;

* Only the principal and vice-principal should decide if travel will take place during inclement weather. Therefore, there should be a provincial training model to help them make informed decisions about travel;

* An itinerary or detailed explanation of trips should be sent to each student's parents;

* Additional snow plows and drivers should be used by the Department of Transportation at the time of bad weather all over the province;

* The Department of Transportation Road Patrol should report road conditions to the road supervisor immediately;

* It should be mandatory for all policies in place to be read and signed by all parties involved for the safety of students;

* As part of the recommendations outlined today, all current policies already in place should remain as such and be strictly adhered to;

* Procedures developed by School District 15 in regards to safeguarding pupil transportation should be disseminated to all school districts and through them to all schools;

* The Department of Transportation should review the condition of road shoulders and make the necessary repairs to the section of Highway 8 from the junction of Route 11 south to the Allardville exit;

* The registrar of the Department of Motor Vehicles should advise all licensees that 15-passenger vans are to be inspected twice a year, regardless of who operates them.