By Melanie Addington/The Oxford Eagle
OXFORD — One parent’s concern over cell phone use by county school bus drivers has brought attention to a weakness in the Lafayette County School District’s bus communication system — no radios.
The fact that county school buses are not equipped with radios created a minor spat between school officials and a parent, but also highlighted the need for the district to find a solution to this problem. School officials say they are working on a solution, but it comes down to finding the funds.
The communication issue resurfaced two weeks ago when Diana Wells, a parent of a Lafayette Elementary School kindergartner, was at her house when she saw a school bus pass by and the driver was using a cell phone while the bus was full of kids.
She reported the problem to Adam Pugh, superintendent of the Lafayette County School District. He was helpful and told her he would take care of the problem.
She didn’t notice the driver do it again and thought the problem was solved, until one recent morning when she saw the driver of a different county school bus talking on a cell phone.
Wells was aware that it’s illegal for those with a commercial driver’s license, such as a school bus driver, to talk on a cell phone when driving.
She called the school district again and was told she must speak to Eddie Murphree, the district’s transportation director. The conversation with Murphree didn’t go as well as Wells’ earlier conversation with Pugh. Essentially, Murphree suggested that Wells call the Mississippi Highway Patrol if she has a problem with the behavior of the county school’s bus drivers.
Wells did as she was told and called the Highway Patrol as well as the governor’s office. Wells spoke with Jennifer Turner, CDL license director with the Mississippi Highway Patrol in Batesville who plans to investigate the incident. Turner is also a parent of children in the Lafayette School District.
“It is required for bus drivers to have a class D license and when driving they can’t be on their cell phone,” Turner said. “It applies to everybody, but especially school bus drivers.”
Specifically bus drivers are barred from using wireless communication devices if a minor is on board. Fines are up to $500 or $1,000 if an accident results. The law took effect in 2011.
School bus drivers in the state are also banned from text messaging.
Turner said such complaints are not common and said she is unsure why the transportation director would ignore the parent’s complaint.
“I am going to look into that,” Turner said.
Murphree said he regrets how he responded to the parent.
“I gave her a sarcastic answer and she took it as verbatim,” Murphree said. “Sometimes we are human; we let our emotions get involved and make a comment we wish we could take back later on.”
Murphree said that stress caused him to get frustrated rather than explain to her about the buses.
“I spoke to both drivers about the cell phone usage,” Murphree said. “One had an emergency call as her dog had been run over and the other one answered when it rang and I have told them not to answer other than emergency.”
While Pugh acknowledges that the bus drivers should not be using their cell phones for personal use, they are currently being used for emergency use.
“If there is an emergency that comes up, we want to be able to be in touch with them,” Pugh said.
A recent example was a student that got on the wrong bus. Every bus driver was called on their cell phone until the student was located.
“We are having several conversations about that,” said Pugh, who was a former superintendent in Pontotoc. “Something I would like to do is have radios. In Pontotoc, we had radios on all our buses so if we needed to get in touch with them we were able to tune in from the office.”
Pugh said the expense is cost-prohibitive for the district to purchase a new digital systems but he is looking into other radio options. A cost estimate is not yet available.
Murphree said he was not aware of the new law, but he also feels that radios are a good idea for the district. And despite the recent cell phone complaint, Murphree said the bus drivers do an outstanding job and work hard to get a lot of children home safe every day.
“They are people out here busting their tails,” Murphree said.
“Transporting kids to and from the school is the most dangerous thing that we do,” Pugh said. “We want to get them here safe and we want to get them home safe.”
Wells said her daughter is not riding the bus.