Bus driver suspended for texting while driving

A longtime Franklin County school bus driver will face a hearing before a Tallahassee administrative law judge, and possible termination by the school board, after an investigation by school officials found multiple instances of her using her cell phone while driving a bus.

At the March 28 school board meeting, the board voted 3-2 to uphold Superintendent Steve Lanier’s suspension order of Carrie “Liz” Custer from the bus driving job she has held for the past 23 years. Voting in favor of dismissal were Board Chairman Stacy Kirvin, and members Melonie Inzetta and Jared Mock, while Fonda Davis and Pam Marshall noted no.

In early March, Lanier had also ordered that the suspension be without pay pending her dismissal from the job. At the March 28 meeting, the board unanimously voted to continue the suspension with pay for the next several weeks, during which time the Tallahassee judge will issue a recommendation and the school board will have to make a final determination on Custer’s status.

In his petition for dismissal, Lanier argued that Custer’s “egregious conduct,” as found on a review of video footage from bus #38 covering the last two weeks of January, “constitutes reckless endangerment of her students’ lives.”

The investigation, conducted by Transportation Manager Teresa Segree and Anthony Croom, district safety and security officer, was prompted by an afternoon cell phone call on Feb. 1 from Custer to Principal Danielle Rosson. The call was of a non-emergency nature and informed the principal that someone was on the way to unlock Custer’s car in order to retrieve athletic equipment for a member of Custer’s family.

After Rosson reported the cell phone call to the district office, Lanier asked for a review of the previous two weeks of video footage.

In his dismissal request, the superintendent listed 21 instances in which Custer operated her cellphone in her hand as she drove, and in one instance, “completely removed” her hands from the steering wheel as she drove. The order said video showed instances when Custer texted with both hands while she drove, and that she responded to a text message while students exited the bus while in the driveway of the Eastpoint Nest.

In other instances, Custer was seen to have exited the bus while students were on board, without either shutting off the bus or removing the keys from the ignition.

Custer was seen wearing earbuds in both ears while she drove, and it was noted that at least two of the instances of cell phone usage took place “during early morning hours while it was still dark outside.”

In a review of the driver’s conduct on Feb. 1, the dismissal petition noted that Custer stopped the bus at a stop sign before leaving campus, leaving it running with the parking brake engaged and with the keys in the ignition, before returning to the bus, which was full of students.

Without going into detail, Custer admitted before the board that she had erred. “I love my job,” she said. “I did make a mistake. And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to set this right. 

“I did not jeopardize no children,” she said.

Custer was backed by Monica Morón, who spoke as head of the union that represents the support staff. She was flanked by Hilary Stanton, who represents the teachers union who spoke only briefly in solidarity.

Morón argued that as a longtime employee with no blemishes on her record over the past 16 years, Custer should be spared dismissal and offered an avenue to learn from his mistake. “She has made it clear she’s willing to make this right if given the opportunity,” she said. “No child was harmed; no property was harmed.”

Morón asked that the board extend Custer an opportunity to correct her behavior “instead of punishing somebody for not using her best judgment.

“She is in no way saying she didn’t do this,” she said. ”Give her a chance to keep her job and improve her performance.”

Morón noted the costs of training bus drivers, of which the district has had a scarcity of interested applicants.

She also raised issues with the process that Lanier employed in the suspension, a process governed by the collective bargaining agreement. The superintendent’s attorney Lindsey Miller-Hailey, of the Coppins Monroe law firm, countered that there was no evidence of any variation from the protocols for emergency suspension and dismissal.

School board attorney Donna Duncan told the board that since Custer had opted to take the matter to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearing, the board now had the option of either upholding or dismissing Lanier’s petition for dismissal. Since they upheld it, they will have to weigh the administrative law judge’s recommendation before reaching a final determination.

According to Florida Statute, all drivers of any motor vehicle are prohibited from any and all texting while driving, although those who text while stationary do not run afoul of the law. School board policy goes on to ban any and all uses of cellphones by bus drivers, but does allow use of such phones for “official uses of an urgent nature” but the bus must be off the roadway and stopped in a safe area.

“Cellular phone use for voice communication and texting while driving has been found to contribute to school bus crashes,” notes the policy.

New buses head to Franklin

Thanks in large part to the recently passed half-cent sales earmarked for capital expenditures, Franklin County is about to get nine new school buses, over the course of the next two years.
The first order is of three Thomas buses, each costing about $150,000, purchased via a five-year lease installment plan. Funding for these buses come out of the one-mill in property taxes specifically for local capital improvement.
The next two orders, of a total of six-buses, are paid for out of the sales tax fund. The buses with a 77-person capacity range from about $150,000 to $156,000, while the 89-person capacity runs about $178,000. These are all 2024 Thomas C2 buses.
All nine buses, one of which has a wheelchair lift, will have 16 flexible built-in car seats, which allows them to be used as a regular seat or as a car seat for Pre-kindergarten students. 
All nine buses have upgraded illuminated stop signs and school bus signage to increase safety as well as lighting at the step wells of the bus. They also are equipped with 360-degree cameras which allow drivers to have a view around the entirety of the outside of the bus, another upgraded safety feature.

Similar Posts

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.