Bus drivers fired for touching students, dragging people, putting kids' safety at risk
Author: Nathan Morabito
Published: 11:05 PM EDT May 14, 2019
Updated: 11:43 PM EDT May 14, 2019
INVESTIGATORS 9 Articles

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Termination letters show Charlotte-area school districts fired dozens of bus drivers in recent years for everything from inappropriately touching children to dragging a parent to driving under the influence.

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Bus drivers fired for touching students, dragging people, putting kids' safety at risk

INVESTIGATORS
Chapter 1

"Here comes the spider"

Earlier this month, a judge refused to accept a plea deal from Terry Brigman, who faces two counts of assaulting children. 

Fired by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last August, he's accused of repeatedly pinching two Mountain Island Lake Academy students, ages 7 and 8, on the legs and private area. 

One of their parents said Brigman would say "Here comes the spider," and then "Gotcha" after he touched the children's backside.

"The investigation determined that while the physical contact was not sexual in nature, it was inappropriate," CMS wrote in his termination letter.

Court records reveal he touched the victims "on the buttocks and going between the [victims'] legs grabbing [their] genitals."

A police report shows one of the victims "told the bus driver to stop, and moved the bus driver's hand off of his buttocks, but...he did it again." 

The report continued, saying the boy told his mother it, "had been going on for almost the whole year but that he was afraid to tell his mom because he feared that he might get in trouble."

Brigman was prepared to take an Alford Plea last week, maintaining his innocence while admitting there's enough evidence to convict him, but a judge wouldn't accept the plea, knowing the accusations against him and the fact he'd be able to drive a bus again after six months of probation.

Chapter 2

One of more than 30 cases

WCNC requested termination letters from area school districts for the two previous school years and found case after case of bus drivers, safety assistants and safety monitors accused of crossing the line. 

More than two dozen of them formerly worked for CMS, all of whom previously passed background checks. 

CMS declined the chance to talk about this on-camera.

"Thank you for the opportunity for an interview on the topic," CMS Executive Director of Communications Renee McCoy told WCNC five weeks ago. "At this time the district will not have anyone available for an interview."

Chapter 3

Driver drags a student, another drags a parent

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A November 2018 letter showed CMS fired a driver after she dragged a student on October 30.

"Specifically, as you were leaving a bus stop, you closed the door before the last student safely exited the bus and the door closed on the student's backpack," the letter said. "While the student's backpack was caught in the door, he was drug along the road for several feet before you returned your attention to the door and realized what was happening and released the student from the door. Thankfully the student was not harmed seriously but your negligence in not following proper bus stop procedures could have caused [serious] bodily harm to the student."

That same month, CMS fired another driver for dragging a parent.

"Instead of redirecting the parent to the school for information regarding an incident involving his child that occurred on your bus, you attempted to force the parent away from your bus by closing him in the doors," the letter said. "You then proceeded to pull off from the bus...trapping the parent's arm in the door. The footage also shows that you drove for several feet dragging the parent before the parent was able to release his arm."

Chapter 4

Safety concerns

A December 2017 letter shows CMS fired a driver after a child fell off the bus while in motion, and didn't check to make sure the child was okay.

"A review of the school bus video footage showed the student in question was standing at the top of the stairwell while the bus was in motion when he fell down the stairs and out of the moving bus," the letter said. "Video footage further showed that another student on the bus exited to retrieve the student from the road and at no time did you give any attention to whether the student was injured...Additionally, you did not inform dispatch or your direct supervisor that the incident occurred"

Records show CMS fired at least 10 bus drivers during the timeframe in question for failing post-accident drug and/or alcohol screens or failing to submit to mandatory drug testing.

A December 2017 letter shows CMS fired a driver after Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police cited her for speeding in a school zone. 

That same month, CMS fired a driver after receiving a report he drove the bus on the wrong side of the road.

"A review of the school bus video footage confirmed you committed several safety violations while completing your afternoon route on November 14, 2017," the letter said. "Specifically, video footage showed you back the bus up on an active road to go around a median and drive the bus in the direction of oncoming traffic and offload a student onto the median. In addition, you exited the bus leaving several students on the bus unsupervised while you engaged in a verbal altercations with landscapers who were blocking the direction in which you should have been driving."

Just a few months later, records show CMS fired a driver for attempting "to go through a barricaded road closure that crossed a set of railroad tracks."

"Video footage of the incident showed that you were talking on your cell phone at the time of the incident and did not radio for assistance with rerouting your bus in a safe manner," the February 2018 letter said. "Video footage also captured that your bus radio was turned down preventing you from hearing the attempts made to warn you of the road closure and provide you with an alternate route. You also used profanity in the presence of students."

Records show CMS previously suspended that bus driver for three days without pay for using her cell phone while driving the bus.

Beyond those instances, records show CMS fired a driver in August 2017 after police charged him with possession of marijuana and speeding -- driving 74 mph in a 65 mph zone. 

The driver claimed the marijuana did not belong to him and "the matter was being dismissed."

In its most public recent case, CMS fired the driver of a bus carrying 15 students after surveillance video in February captured her side-swiping a car and eventually crashing into an apartment. 

CMPD cited Lashandra Chere Williams, 35, with failure to maintain lane control. She's due in court this summer.

RELATED: School bus driver cited in apartment building crash near uptown

A December 2017 letter shows CMS fired another driver for engaging "an inappropriate relationship while at work." 

That same month, CMS fired another driver for physically touching a student.

"...you spoke to the student in a manner that is unbecoming of a CMS employee, you engaged in unwanted physical contact with the student and you used poor judgment in determining that you would return the student back to the school when you were already at the student's bus stop," the letter said. "Additionally, you allowed said student to remain standing in the stairwell of the bus, as he banged his body against the doors, while you drove back to the school."

An April 2018 letter identified a bus driver fired for allowing a non-CMS employee to enter the bus "and threaten students" in his care. The letter said the person who entered the bus also made unwanted physical contact with a student.

"A review of the bus surveillance video of the incident indicated you failed to address the situation with the individual nor did you notify dispatch of the incident," the letter said.

Chapter 5

Failing to set the parking brake

Within days of each other last school year, records show CMS fired two bus drivers for failing to set their parking brakes.

A February 2018 letter shows CMS fired a driver after she left her bus unattended and it rolled into a vehicle. The district's investigation found she "failed to properly set the parking brake prior to exiting the bus."

Just days prior, CMS fired another driver for the same thing after her bus rolled in the West Mecklenburg High School bus parking lot. The cause of that incident was her "failure to properly set the parking brake prior to exiting the bus."

Chapter 6

Other districts

Union County Schools fired two bus drivers, three safety assistants, and one safety monitor during the previous two school years, according to records. 

In one case, police cited a bus safety assistant for assaulting a child after he reportedly pulled an elementary school student's ear while on the bus.

"Reportedly, the student was leaning forward in his seat when (the bus monitor) pulled him by the ear hard enough to slide him back in his seat," Union County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Tony Underwood said.

A Lincoln County Schools termination letter shows that district fired a driver in February of this year after she used profanity and made "a derogatory and threatening comment to a student."

Associate Superintendent Dr. Aaron Allen said there is no video available of the incident.

"(An) Old 1967 VCR recorder was on [a] bus and the tape was shredded when they removed it," Dr. Allen said.

Cabarrus County Schools provided confirmation of two bus drivers fired, one in 2017 and the other in 2018, but did not disclose the reasons for the dismissals.

While Iredell-Statesville Schools said it did not have any termination letters to share, the district confirmed it terminated a driver last year and suspended another for one day in February for "using profanity while addressing student behaviors."

Rowan-Salisbury Schools said no transportation employees were dismissed in the prior two school years.

As noted in several of the letters, there is often video evidence. WCNC tried to get those videos, but state law makes it difficult in most instances. 

In addition, CMS deletes the original copies after 30 days. ISS cited "student confidentiality" as a reason for not releasing the video in its case.

Chapter 7

"We get a black eye"

The North Carolina Pupil Transportation Association's executive director said these rare cases are proof districts take quick action against bad drivers.

Scott Denton said bus drivers have a thankless job that doesn't pay well, has bad hours and leaves no room for error, making it difficult for districts to recruit.

"It seems like we get a black eye and that black eye lingers for a long time sometimes and that's kind of frustrating, because I know that folks are out there working hard to make sure that every child is transported safely and on time to school and has a good experience," Denton said. "(Districts) try to do the best job they can in recruiting the best kind of people, but sometimes we have a mismatch, a person that doesn't deal well with kids, a person that just doesn't follow directions well and you miss that in the interview process somehow."

CMS has dealt with a longstanding bus driver shortage. While the district only had five bus driver vacancies in April, at the beginning of the school year the district had 57 vacancies, 35 at the start of the 2017-18 school year and 97 at the start of the 2016-17 school year.

Denton said recruiting isn't the only issue. He said there is a continued need for more training as well.

"When you're hauling 66 precious babies on that bus, you're going to have 66 different personalities and that does require some additional training," he said. "You may have folks that really do a good job of handling the vehicle, but when they get out there and start driving with students, they've not been prepared for what's coming when students are more rowdy in the afternoon. We have many of our school districts across the state provide training, but it requires a lot of training."

CMS told us its drivers receive disruptive student training.

"That same type of training will continue next year," McCoy said.

Chapter 8

How can parents help?

Both Denton and CMS said parents have a role in all of this, too.

For one, they're urged to get know their child's bus driver. Parents can start by calling their district's transportation office and asking for the driver's name.

Moms and dads are also urged to support drivers when possible by disciplining children at home and reminding them of what kind of behavior is expected.

"Parents need to take personal responsibility," Denton said. "Don't always immediately side with your kids."

"Parents can always help by advising their children of school bus safety measures, expected behavior on school buses and parents and guardians abiding by the law which prohibits unauthorized individuals from boarding school buses," McCoy said.

Overall, both said most bus drivers will always do the right thing.

"A school bus driver's priority is to operate the school bus in a safe manner," McCoy said. "The student or bus rider's priority is to conduct themselves in accordance with outlined safety rules."

"We don't want to have situations where we're not treating people with respect and treating people correctly and making sure they're safe," Denton said. "They're going to be mistakes that are made, but they're not on purpose. There are a lot of committed people out there who are working hard to make sure that students are safe and drivers are trained properly."

Chapter 9

Brigman's case

Terry Brigman is due back in court in August to face his assault charges.

"Out of courtesy to the respective parties, especially given the allegations involve minors, we do not believe it prudent to comment," his attorney Bill Powers said.

A January 2018 letter shows CMS fired another driver after he was charged in South Carolina with second-degree assault and battery. Court records show that charge was dismissed by prosecutors.