Monday, October 19, 2009

Letter to John McLaughlin, District 15 Superintendent, about the Survey, new Standards document, and winter tires on BHS's Multi Function Vehicles

Isabelle Hains, Marcella Kelly
Bathurst, NB
October 19, 2009

John McLaughlin
Superintendent District 15
Department of Education
Dalhousie, NB


We received your letter dated September 29, 2009, regarding standards for travel in winter weather conditions and we have read the attached “Standards for Cancellation of Extracurricular Travel Effective September 2009”, which we understand was distributed to every parent with a child in School District 15.

In our opinion, this new Standards document fails to meet the high standard for student travel that was set by the Coroners Jury Recommendations which came out of the May 2009 Inquest into our son’s deaths. No matter how much the Department of Education would like the public to believe that it has changed the way school children are transported to extracurricular activities, we see no significant changes to the decision making process since January 12, 2008, nor in the cancellation standards or monitoring requirements. Without the implementation of the five key recommendations, noted below, we fear that there will be a repeat of the circumstances which led to our sons deaths on January 12, 2008.

We have reviewed the Standards document and compared it to the previous Guidelines 512 and 513 which were in effect at the time our sons were killed. We are haunted by the thought that these so-called new Standards are actually the same Guidelines 512 and 513 that the Department of Education was developing for more than six years prior to the 2008 tragedy.

The School Principal is still responsible for decision making when it comes to cancelling extracurricular activities.

The school principal still relies on advice and support from the superintendent and staff.

The Superintendent always had the right to overturn the principal’s decisions.

When it comes to Cancellation Standards, there has also been very little change. The school principal always had access to the latest news and weather reports through the Transport Manager who had access to AMEC.

Also, according to Section 4.19 of Guideline 513, which was in effect on January 12, 2008, students were not supposed to travel when winter weather conditions presented a hazard. Nothing has changed in that regard.

Guideline 513, S. 4.19
Groups travelling out of town should be prepared to stay overnight if weather or road conditions present a hazard.

It torments us to know that so little has changed, a word here, a phrase there, despite what you describe in your letter as a “comprehensive consultation process regarding standards for travel in winter weather conditions.”

We would like to know the details of the said consultation process: who was consulted; was it only District 15 or the entire province; when did the consultation take place; what was in the survey; how many people were surveyed; how many people responded to the survey; what was the percentage of people who were sent the survey who actually completed it; what percentage of people who were sent the survey spoiled the results by failing to complete it properly; what was the timeline during which the survey was mailed out and the cut off date for completion; what were the results of the survey; were there any focus groups consulted; who (name of company or staff members of the Department) crafted the survey; who compiled the results; has anyone else outside the Department reviewed the results; were there any in depth surveys taken of select groups; was there an independent review of the survey results; in comparison to other surveys would you say the number of participants was high or low; do these standards apply only to District 15?

We are also disturbed by the fact that nearly six months after the Coroners Jury released its recommendations the following main recommendations have not been implemented:

The New Brunswick Department of Education take full responsibility for the safety of children travelling to off-site extra-curricular events when they are representing their school.

Nothing less than a qualified Class 2 yellow school bus driver with endorsements B (valid for school buses) and E (valid for air brakes) for all students travel to off-site, extracurricular events. Teachers, coaches, parents as well as volunteers should not be driving children to off-site extracurricular activities.

A Weather Law preventing students from being transported to off-site extracurricular events in bad weather. If there is a storm alert, the game is cancelled. If the weather changes at destination, students stays overnight. The weather protocol should be used for co and extra-curricular activities.

Fifteen and seven passenger vans banned for student travel across Canada. Only yellow school buses and Multi Function Activity Vehicles (MFAVs) should be used.

It should not be up to the Student Representative Council (SRC) to pay for the Multi Function Activity Vehicles or the maintenance of these vehicles. They should be paid by the province. Student Representative Council should not have to pay the bus drivers to drive the Multi Functional Activity Vehicles if our recommendation for mandatory bus drivers for these vehicles is passed.

In that regard, you are aware that at the private family’s meeting in Bathurst on July 29, the new Minister of Education, Roland Hache, announced the government’s response to the Coroners Inquest Recommendations. At the meeting, a document was circulated “Responses to Coroner’s Inquest Recommendations” which contained the point by point response of the Government to the Jury recommendations.

In our view, the most important recommendation was #5, that, “The New Brunswick Department of Education take full responsibility for the safety of children travelling to off-site extra-curricular events when they are representing their school.” It is the most important because all other recommendations, from Class 2 Bus Drivers to the banning of 15 and seven passenger vans and the responsibilities of the SRC flow from that basic, underlying principle.

Instead of a strong commitment to implementing this key recommendation, the government’s response was, in our view, insincere, weak and self-serving. This is what the Government document said: “The Department of Education takes responsibility for the safety of students at all times, and will continue to make safety the priority.”

Apparently, we are not the only ones who thought the Department of Education’s response to student safety was inadequate. You are aware that the next day, July 30, an Editorial appeared in the Telegraph Journal, which called into question the Department’s commitment to the key recommendation to “take full responsibility for the safety of children”.

In an attempt to defend the Department of Education, on July 31, Mr. Hache wrote in a Letter to the Editor that the Department has adopted the Coroners Jury recommendations to make the safety of children a priority. He wrote: “The Government of New Brunswick has and will continue to take full responsibility for the safety of students at all times…” essentially repeating the same disingenuous statement that appeared in the document circulated at the private family’s meeting two days earlier.

In our view, your Minister and the Department seem to have forgotten the central principle of open justice that “Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.”

You can say that you are taking responsibility for the safety of children all you want, but if you are not implementing all the recommendations of the Coroners Jury then you are not taking the responsibility that the Jury invested in your Department.

Here we are, in late October 2009, and still we do not see Class 2 Bus drivers behind the wheel of the new Multi-Function vehicles, nor do we see a Bad Weather Law and the banning of seven passenger vans. Student councils are still paying for the purchase and maintenance of the Multi Functional Activity Vehicles, including tires. And although the issue of tires is not specifically related to the “Standards” document we are discussing, we have just found out today that the new, smaller Multi-Function Vehicle currently being used by the High School does not have winter tires in the front. If, at this point, the Department has not learned its lesson when it comes to winter tires on vehicles transporting students, how can one blame us for a complete loss of faith in your Department?

We challenge you and your Department to tell us how these new “Standards” are any different from the Guidelines that were in place on the night our sons were killed, You know full well that the Department has refused to implement these five important Jury recommendations and to say anything else is an insult to the memory of our beloved sons.

We expect a response to our questions about the survey outlined above and we would like to know what are your plans for implementing the five outstanding recommendations from the Coroners Jury.

It has been nearly two years since our children were taken away from us in a tragedy that could have been averted if the Department of Education had taken its responsibilities seriously. We serve notice to you and the Department that we will never give up and we will never go away until all the recommendations of the Coroners Jury are fully implemented.

Isabelle Hains, Marcella Kelly

cc. Minister of Education, Roland Hachey
cc. Premier Shawn Graham
cc. Hon. Brian Kenny, Minister Responsible for Non-Profit Secretariat, MLA Bathurst
cc. Yvon Godin, MP, Acadie Bathurst
cc. Hon. John Foran, Minister of Public Safety
cc. Delalene Harris-Foran, President CUPE Local 1253
cc. Media