Eyewitness News investigates safety concerns surrounding special education transportation within Fresno Unified. First Student buses transport all special needs kids within the district. Following a bus fire back in September, Eyewitness News began looking closely at the bus company, uncovering email correspondence that reveal a history of multiple mechanical issues. A Fresno mother even says she's removed her special needs daughter from the bus indefinitely.
The love between a mother and daughter is undeniable. Pamela Bean and nine year old Annabelle may not be blood related, but their relationship is as strong as they come. Bean adopted the little girl when she was just three years old and ever since she's done everything in her power to protect her little girl.
Bean says, "They can't speak for themselves. We have to be their voices. I'm my child's best advocate and I always will be."
That was never more true than five years ago, when Annabelle began attending Addicott Elementary- a school for severely disabled students. Everyday she rode a First Student bus to and from school, but Bean says she quickly started noticing problems. First, the bus would arrive late frequently and even fail to pick up Annabelle some days. Then, she says things turned dangerous.
"She was coming home in the heat just listless, sweating. I'd have to bring her in to change her clothing because she was soaking wet, and there were a couple of times that she was not unresponsive, but just very, very close to being unresponsive," says Bean.
According to Bean, during the summer months Annabelle would return home sick from the heat. The little girl has Cerebral Palsy and a seizure disorder which gets worse in hot conditions. Bean says she expressed those concerns to First Student management several times, but nothing changed.
"I was worried that she could indeed get heat stroke or heat sickness, so I don't transport her anymore."
Following an Eyewitness News Investigation into a First sSudent bus that caught fire while transporting two disabled students in September, we were contacted by parents claiming the air conditioners on their child's buses were broken. We also received a picture from two different people claiming to be former and current first student bus drivers of a bus completely engulfed in flames at Rio Vista and Manning on the outskirts of Reedley. According to cal fire, the incident happened in 2014 while no students were on board. We reached out to First Student spokesperson Jay Brock who said, "There are not mechanical or safety issues on these particular buses."
Documents uncovered by Eyewitness News tell a different story. Emails that we obtained through a public record's request when we first began looking more closely at the bus company. The emails are between Fresno Unified transportation and special education officials and staff as well as First Student management. Three months of correspondence from August of 2016 to October of 2016, reveal nearly 200 exchanges and dozens of concerns. In one email, a Fresno Unified staff member says a driver picked up students but then returned minutes later because the air conditioner wasn't working. The email went onto to say the same bus had the same problem the day before and according to the driver, maintenance couldn't find the issue. The very next day, a concerned principal mentions that very bus transports four students who have seizure disorders and reminds that heat induces seizures.
Brock says, "I do not understand of any record I have where the buses are hitting the road with no working AC."
Claims of other mechanical issues also brought up. Twice in one week, the wheelchair lifts on a bus were allegedly broken. In another email, a principal claims it took one bus more than an hour to turn it's engine over. Brock maintains that nothing is wrong with First Student buses.
"These buses are maintained on a very high frequency level so on a very regular frequency level."
In Annabelle's case, Brock says he understands the mother's concerns.
"That's a very disturbing thing absolutely. We don't want to inhibit the child's safety in any way."
Brock says the issue wasn't with broken air conditioning units, but rather with a state law that requires a bus be turned off when there is no driver in the seat.
"Unfortunately, a lot of that cool air leaves the bus and it takes awhile to cool back down," says Brock.
Bean has since quit her job and now takes Annaballe to and from school herself. She says she hopes First Student will further invest in new equipment, maintenance and oversight for the sake of the thousands of children it transports every single day.
"Is it money? Or is it someone's life?," asks Bean.
Fresno Unified says that part of it's contract with First Student requires the company to purchase all new buses by 2018 and say half of the fleet has already been replaced.