Q: Recently, I have heard several news stories about school bus accidents. What can we do to keep our students safe and minimize the legal risk to the district?
A: Texas law generally gives districts broad immunity, except for actions arising from the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle. Unfortunately, should a school bus accident occur in your district due to an employee’s negligence, you are likely exposed and should immediately contact your insurance carrier and school district’s attorney. There are steps you can take, such as vetting and drug testing drivers, as well as removing passenger vans from your fleet, that can minimize the risk associated with transporting students.
Texas public school districts enjoy a substantial limitation of liability for most personal injury and property damage law suits. However, the Legislature carved out one exception, permitting suit (and potential liability) against a school district when the accident is the result of the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle. It is critical, therefore, that you take steps to prevent any finding of “negligence” on the part of your drivers. This requires documented evidence that your drivers are fully licensed, trained and vetted to ensure that you are employing competent individuals to operate the district’s vehicles. It is also wise to test all employees in “safety sensitive” positions for drug and alcohol use, including not only bus drivers, but also your coaches and sponsors who transport students. Board Policy DHE (LEGAL) allows for both random and reasonable suspicion testing.
Of additional concern to school districts is the safety of the vehicle itself (requiring documented service and maintenance records) and in particular, the use of 15-passenger vans. Texas Education Code §34.003 and Board Policy CNA (LEGAL) allow the use of 15-passenger vans for the transportation of students, but only on routes other than to and from school, such as to and from extracurricular events. Such passenger vehicles may not carry more passengers than their design capacity permits and the operator must ensure that all passengers are wearing seat belts. Note that despite these safety precautions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) strongly warns against using these vehicles for student transportation, and several districts (such as Dallas ISD) have discontinued use of all vans entirely. If your district currently utilizes passenger vans for extracurricular transportation, we recommend your review of the safety advisory found here (www.nhtsa.dot.gov) and discussion with your insurance carrier, who may recommend that you consider discontinuing their use in favor of traditional school buses to minimize the risk to your students and employees.