School Bus Deaths Reveal Precious Cargo in Dicey Hands

By: Sheila Simmons

Who’s driving our kids?

That’s the question that crossed my mind as I looked in horror at the televised image of a yellow school bus wrapped around a tree and the caption that five children had died in an accident that may have been due to speed.

Who speeds in a school bus?

The photo of the man charged with five counts of vehicular homicide in the Chattanooga, Tenn., accident — Johnthony Walker — appeared on the screen, fresh-faced, wide-eyed, loc-wearing, 24-years-old.

I don’t know Johnthony Walker. I know 24, and I question whether that’s old enough to bear the responsibility for a cargo that precious. And I know Durham School Services. It transports Philadelphia school children.

That should make us sit up a bit.

Something else that should make us sit up is the story in Tuesday’s USA Today.

The article reads that according to federal records, the privately owned Durham “has had 142 crashes with injuries and three fatalities in the last 24 months.”

With more than 13,000 vehicles and 13,000 drivers, the Warrenville, Ill.-based company is large, the article stated, adding it had an “overall satisfactory safety rating” as determined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

But also in reference to Durham, the safety administration noted, “93 percent of motor carriers in the same safety event group have better on-road performance than this motor carrier.”

Recently disclosed, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety, in 2014, Johnthony Walker had had his license suspended following a crash.

Durham CEO David A. Duke issued a statement on the company’s website regarding the Chattanooga crash:

“Our entire team at Durham School Services is devastated by the accident yesterday that tragically claimed the lives of Chattanooga students. We are working with Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County School District to investigate. We also have additional team members arriving in Chattanooga today to provide support. We have offered to provide counseling to students and families of Hamilton County, as well as our employees. We will provide all further updates in coordination with the Chattanooga Police Department and the district.”

In April 2014, Durham School Services acquired business from Atlantic Express Transportation Corp., which had operated student transportation for the School District of Philadelphia. That included 364 buses, 320 routes and more than 500 employees to Durham’s existing operations, according to School Bus Fleet, an industry publication.

Atlantic Express, formerly the fourth-largest contractor in North America having operated in New York, Massachusetts, California and Pennsylvania, cited a “union battle, bidding issues and challenging earnings” for its downfall.

“Safety is embedded in our culture at Durham and is a core value that we truly live by,” said Charlie Bruce, vice president of the Northeast area said in 2014 when it kicked off its start in Philadelphia.

With the holidays upon us I wasn’t able to get information from the School District of Philadelphia on the safety record Durham School Services has here.

There’s gonna be lots of tears and investigating before Walker is brought to trial for the deaths of these five children. Let’s make sure that here in Philadelphia, we know and are comfortable with who’s driving our kids.

In the meantime, a fund has been set up at the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga to help those impacted by the crash. Donations can be made at

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Photo courtesy of: AP/Mark Humphrey