Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Day Seven: Guidelines Ignored, Children Put in Peril While Gov't Dreams Up Drivers Training Schemes To Make It Look Like They're Doing Something

Today marks 16 months since Daniel and Javier were killed on that lonely stretch of Highway 8 outside of Bathurst. Little did we know 16 months ago that we would spend this day in a courtroom attending a Coroners Inquest into the death of our sons.

Again, the two front rows were filled with parents and relatives and by 9 am we were sitting in anticipation of the first witness. We knew that John McLaughlin was going to testify so we were prepared with a long list of questions that we had already submitted to the Corner and Crown Prosecutor.

John McLaughlin, Superintendent of District 15

John McLaughlin is the Superintendent of District 15, an area that stretches all the way from Tidehead to Miscou Island in Northern New Brunswick. McLaughlin is the only employee of the District Education Council, (what used to be known as the School Board) and he is the senior administrator in the District for the Anglophone sector.

Crown Prosecutor George Chiasson asked McLaughlin if he was expected to be aware of Guidelines 512, 513 and Policy 504, the main guidelines and policies that have formed much of the discussion over the past seven days of testimony.

“Yes”, McLaughlin said, explaining that policies are mandatory while guidelines are “recommendations” or “best practices.”

We would like the Department of Education to explain how a Guideline that specifically refers to policies and regulations of the Education Act (as do both Guidelines 512 and 513), can be considered a “recommendation” or “best practice” when the policies and regulations they refer to are mandatory. These guidelines, policies and regulations are interlinked and cannot be separated.

The Department of Education can’t have it both ways. Just like the issue about the Commercial vs. Passenger Vehicle status, they only want to deal with the parts of Guidelines 512 and 513 that suit them best – while betraying our children in the process.

At this point in the Inquest, we’re not surprised to hear that nobody takes guidelines seriously: if even one of the persons connected to this collision had paid any attention to the guidelines, we wouldn’t be sitting in a courtroom in Bathurst listening to one witness after another tell us “I can’t remember” “I forget” “It’s not my job” or “It’s not my responsibility”. There have been a few stellar moments, like when Cpl. Annie Nielson, Greg Sypher, Curt Bennet and Timothy Daley appeared as witnesses, but today’s testimony was a low point.

Long History to Guidelines 512 and 513

McLaughlin admitted there was a “long history” to Guidelines 512 and 513. He said the first draft appeared in September 2002 and it wasn’t until September 2007 that they were introduced. Meantime Policy 504 has been around in one way or another since 1977!

Even though everything we have heard so far proves nobody follows the guidelines or the policies, McLaughlin expects us to believe that schools “strive to meet everything in the guidelines as much as they can.”

We know that is just rhetoric, like an empty promise, it means nothing. Mr. Lord didn’t know about the guidelines, former Vice Principal Don McKay said yesterday that the guidelines are “just recommendations” and even the Principal Coleen Ramsay hadn’t even bothered to read them when they arrived in September 2007.

We pray that the “recommendations” that come out of this inquest are taken more seriously than the guidelines and policies that were supposed to protect our children and keep them safe that awful night.

How little our children must have meant to the people in authority that they couldn’t even follow something so simple. Whether it was a guideline, a policy or a regulation, what does it matter? It was common sense.

You use winter tires in the winter in this province.

You stay in a motel overnight in bad weather.

You keep vehicles maintained properly when they are transporting precious children.

These guidelines and policies were worked on for nearly five years and they were written in black and white for a reason – they were to be followed for the sake of the children’s safety.

McLaughlin did clarify one important issue for us when he confirmed that our children were, in fact, the responsibility of the Department of Education that night. Up until today, nobody would confirm that students who are attending extra-curricular events on behalf of their schools were actually the responsibility of the Department.

In fact, at one point this winter, we were told by Ron White of the Department of Education that sports was not part of the curriculum and therefore, our boys were not under the jurisdiction of the Department when they took that fateful trip to Moncton and back. This was something that tormented us for months. We felt that nobody was taking responsibility for our children. So to hear McLaughlin say that they were responsible for our boys gives a tiny bit of closure. Not much, but it is better than nothing - which is what we expect to come out of this inquest given the fact that under the current Coroners Act, the Jury’s recommendations are not binding. This is a huge failure of the Coroners Act and another reason why it must be completely overhauled.

Elizabeth Abraham, Assistant Deputy Minister of Education

Elizabeth Abraham came to the witness stand holding three large binders, the contents of which she referred to quite a bit in her testimony.

She spoke extensively about Policies 512 and 513 which grew out of the guidelines of the same name. She couldn’t recall ever reviewing the guidelines when they were in force: “I can’t remember, it might have been a formal meeting, it might been my staff who sat me down or it might have been at a meeting with other ADMs, but I cannot recall” she said of the guidelines.

She did, however, have considerably more involvement in the development of the new policies since the crash and she explained the differences, minor that they are, between the old guidelines 512 and 513 which were in effect at the time of the crash, and the new policies which were introduced on February 27, 2009.

New Drivers Training Program RFP (Request for Proposals) Comes As A Shock

She talked about the implementation of the new policies and spoke of a proposed training program that the Department intends to pilot as early as the end of this school year.

This was a shock to us, especially when we found out that they’ve already tendered an RFP (Request for Proposals) for a Driver Training.

Abraham said the training could be a mix of on-line / classroom / hands on / or practical training targetting potential volunteer Class 4 drivers whom the Department intends to put behind the wheels of the new Multi Function Activity Vehicles (MFAVs).

Apparently, they’re also going to drive seven passenger vans which we figure they’ll have to rent since the Department can’t own them. (We’re unclear about that. The idea of 7 passenger vans was something that just cropped up and was never fully explained. That’s another issue which we’ll talk about later, because we don’t agree with the use of 7 passenger vans. They’re just mini 15 passenger vans and they should not be used to transport children to off site extra-curricular activities.)

The Drivers Training was interesting for another reason: there they are developing courses filled with content that they’ve already decided upon BEFORE this Inquest makes its recommendations. We thought that was callous, and showed no respect for our children and us as parents.

Class 4 Drivers Training Program

Ms. Abraham explained that the training program will consist of seven hours – you count ‘em – seven hours training on the following subject areas:

Rules of the road
Seat belt use
Weather and road conditions
Inclement weather
Driver fatigue
Effects of drugs and medicine
Review of Policy 512 / 513 and other policies in development
Pre and post-trip inspectionb
Air brakes
Log books
Preventative maintenance
Six months MVI

How they intend to cover all that in seven hours is beyond us. Would you like your children driven to extra-curricular events by someone who took a seven hour course?

Compare that to the intensive week long training course with extensive follow up, defensive drivers training, annual refresher courses, etc. that Class 2 Drivers take. It makes the seven hours look like a half-hearted attempt to deal with the safe transportation of children.

There is only one way to transport these children and it’s with a unionized, full time Class 2 yellow school bus drivers who do this for a living. They don’t have to be driving yellow school buses, they just have be behind the wheel.

Department of Education Ignores Trained Class 2 Bus Drivers at Its Own Peril

This whole Class 4 drivers training course idea is a waste of money – and that’s taxpayer’s money mind you, not the kind of money that comes from the sale of chocolate bars.

Abraham said it’s going to cost $300 to train each person and they’ve put aside $100,000 for this training. Problem is, these people only drive seasonally, maybe 10 to 15 times a year and how many of those trips are out of town in winter months? By the time the next year rolls around, the Class 4 “trained” driver won’t have sat behind the wheel of one of these MFAV’s for a year.

Meantime, we have a cadre of trained, professional, and skilled yellow school bus drivers who would love to drive the MFAVs (but not the 7 passenger vans) and the Department of Education simply chooses to ignore them at it own peril.

It’s illogical, but what else can we expect from the Department of Education, the same Department that says “safety” is one of its core values.

Fred Blaney, Engineering Services, Department of Transportation

The next witness was Mr. Fred Blaney, Executive Director of Engineering Services for the Department of Transportation. Mr. Blaney was called to address the issue of road width and the condition of that stretch of Highway 8 where the collision occurred. He explained the ins and outs of highway construction, and concluded that at the time of the crash, the highway “was built as it should have been.”

He also spoke about the drop off at the shoulder of the road where the collision occurred. He said that he became aware of the drop off after the July 2008 RCMP Reconstruction report but that nobody had any direct communication with him about it.

Blaney verified that he had been to the crash site today and there was indeed a drop off but when the Jury asked if it had been fixed yet, he answered “I was there today and it didn’t look like it.”

When the Jury asked, “When will it be fixed?” he said “I can assure you that the DOT is aware of it.”

16 Months Later and We're Still Waiting for the Drop Off to Be Fixed?

As of today, it’s been 16 months since our children were killed. We wonder how long it will take this to get fixed now that Mr. Blaney has been asked the question by a Coroners Jury?

We’ll let you know.

Gary Spencer, Vehicle Management Agency, NB Department of Transportation

The next witness was Gary Spencer, Enginer, Assistant Director of Operations for Vehicle Management Agency at the Department of Transportation.

Mr. Spencer explained how the 15 passenger vans owned by Bathurst Van Inc. (and all the other private companies that had been formed to purchase school vehicles) had been purchased by the Department of Transportation. He said that there were a total of 12 15 passenger vans which were being converted to maintenance and cargoe vehicles by removing the seats and installing a crash barrier. Spencer confirmed that these 12 vans will NOT be transporting students.

He further explained that there were 28 “other” type of vehicles which had been “offered as a gift” to the province. Now this is where things started to get confusing, and we’d like some clarification.

Department of Transportation Offering 7 Passenger Vans to Schools? NOT a Good Idea!

Spencer spoke about 7 passenger vans and this is something that we do not agree with whatsoever. We do not want children being transported to off-site extra-curricular events in 7 passenger vans. These are just mini 15 passenger vans and we are completely against their use by the schools. In fact, after we heard that, we decided to include the banning of 7 passenger vans in our recommendations.

If the Department thinks we are going to put up with that, it’s got another thing coming.

Although Mr. Spencer assured us that the vehicles under his control will get the best mechanical service, he had us worried when he said DOT contracts out some of its work to local garages. Who decides if the shop is competent to do the work? Now that’s an interesting question. We pray it’s not the same one that was doing the inspections on the white Ford Econoline in which our sons were killed.

Tomorrow, May 13, 2009

We already know that tomorrow is going to be the final day of testimony. We expect to hear from Rick Arseneault, who is responsible for Pupil Transportation at the NB Department of Education; a retired Class 2 Yellow School Bus Driver, and; Const. Yves Allain, the lead RCMP investigator.

When the testimony formally closes, we submit our recommendations to the Coroner and then the Jury meets to make its own recommendations. We aren’t exactly sure how this works but we understand that we should be prepared to return at one hour’s notice to hear the Jury’s recommendations. This could happen as early as Wednesday afternoon or any time Thursday or even Friday for that matter. We don’t know.

The Struggle Has Just Begun

One thing for certain, this Inquest may be over, but our struggle is just beginning. We know we’re going to have a fight on our hands with the Department of Education over Class 2 drivers and we don’t intend to back down.