Allegations that an East Greenwich school bus driver has been verbally abusive toward elementary school students and adults during daily routes were brought to the attention of officials during the School Committee’s Sept. 1 meeting.
Resident Erin Penhall claimed during public comment that the driver of Bus No. 2, which her children take to George R. Hanaford Elementary School, is someone who “doesn’t seem to enjoy being around children” and referred to the driver as a “bully.”
Penhall told the School Committee that she has reached out to Ocean State Transit, the company that provides bus service to East Greenwich, for more than a year regarding her concerns. She said the verbal abuse has gone on for “an entire year” and parents were “right back to where [they] started” when the new school year began last week.
Superintendent Victor Mercurio noted during the meeting that he would reach out to Ocean State Transit, and confirmed via email Sept. 3 that he spoke with bus company representatives about the complaints. Mercurio also said that he was unfamiliar with many of the comments, questions and concerns that were brought forward by parents.
Penhall and other parents were initially scheduled to meet with Mercurio this week to share their concerns about the driver and other bus-related matters. However, Christine DiMeglio, administrative assistant to Mercurio, said Wednesday that the meeting has been postponed. A new meeting date has not yet been scheduled.
Ocean State Transit issued a statement via email Tuesday afternoon, stating that the driver in question has been reassigned to another route because of “complaints received on the first day of the new school year.”
“The top priority of every Ocean State Transit employee is the safety and well-being of our student passengers [and] making sure all students follow the rules is critical to keeping them safe,” the statement read. “Parental complaints are taken very seriously and each and every issue is addressed with employees in cooperation with the school district and individual parents.”
Ocean State Transit also noted that the company holds monthly driver meetings that reinforce policies for driving and interactions with students. In addition, the statement lauded the driver for her “impeccable record for safe driving,” and the company said it would continue to “coach” her regarding appropriate management and communications with passengers.
This isn’t the first time Bus No. 2 has been mired in controversy. On Halloween Day two years ago, Scott Sanford of East Greenwich, a former bus monitor, was one of 11 individuals arrested by Rhode Island State Police for possession and transmission of child pornography. Sanford’s arrest triggered legislative reform in the state regarding background checks for companies who serve as vendors to school districts.
In an interview Friday, Penhall detailed some of the alleged incidents that have occurred on Bus No. 2 with this driver. She described the driver as someone who allegedly uttered “screaming or nastiness” to children “on her best day.” On the driver’s worst days, Penhall said the driver would be “snarky” with the students.
Other times, the driver would allegedly raise her voice at the children, Penhall said, and played “offensive, sexualized music” during the routes.
Penhall also recalled an incident where both her daughter and son were getting off the bus at the corner of Granite and Stone Ridge drives, and the driver allegedly yelled at Penhall’s son to get back onto the bus, stating that it wasn’t his stop.
“My son said ‘Yes, it is [my stop], this is where you picked me up and my sister just got off. My mom is standing right there.’ And the driver said, ‘You can tell your mom tomorrow that this isn’t going to fly,’” Penhall said. “I was standing right there and I walked toward it knowing there was an issue listening to her. It’s like, ‘can we be professional? These are little kids. Be kind.’”
Penhall said she wasn’t looking to have anyone fired, but would rather have a bus driver who is more polite to younger children. “Little kids have too much fear and anxiety already,” she said. “And seeing [the verbal abuse is] how they start off the day. It’s upsetting.”