On Monday afternoon, a school bus taking kids home from Woodmore Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tennessee lost control, rolled on its side, and wrapped around a tree. Depending on the source, five or six students were killed, while 31 were taken to the hospital; as of Wednesday night, several of them are still in critical condition. Police have already determined this was a criminal act; the driver, Johnthony Walker, was arrested on several charges related to the crash on Monday night.
However, it now looks like Walker had no business being behind the wheel in the first place. The mother of three of the kids on that bus–one of whom died–says she has spent the entire year filing complaints about Walker’s driving and behavior.
Jasmine Mateen lost her daughter, six-year-old Zyaira, in the crash; her sister and brother were gravely injured. However, she told NBC News that she had filed complaint after complaint about Walker for most of the year–and it doesn’t look they went anywhere. Watch here.
Mateen says that as late as two weeks before the crash, Walker had a bad habit of deliberately slamming on brakes, making the kids hit their heads. This prompted her to complain to Woodmore’s principal. When the principal read Mateen’s letter in front of the driver and the kids on the bus, Mateen says Walker harrumphed, “So? I’d do it again.” She also complained about Walker speeding; police believe that Walker was going well above the 30 mph speed limit on that road at the time of the crash.
When a representative from Hamilton County Schools called her to express the district’s condolences, Mateen says she told them that she’d been calling to complain about Walker since August, to no avail.
“Now y’all doing what you supposed to been doing. Now that it’s too late, now that there’s six kids dead. Y’all doing what y’all supposed to be doing, but my baby laying in a cold freezer.”
Mateen broke down after saying that when she saw Zyaira’s body, her mouth was open as if she was screaming. How did that happen? Well, Mateen told CBS News’ Mark Strassmann something even more chilling. Watch here.
Mateen told Strassmann that her surviving kids told her that just seconds before the bus flipped over, Walker yelled, “Are y’all ready to die?” In a colossal understatement, Strassmann said that was an indication that “something was very, very wrong” on that bus.
Mateen wasn’t the only person to complain about Walker. Natila Reed, whose two cousins died in the crash, told WDEF-TV in Chattanooga that Walker had indeed asked the kids on the bus if they were ready to die. Lowenstein Smith said that her grandson was so frightened about Walker’s speeding that he told his teacher about it.
It looks like these parents and others were stuck in a referral loop. Hamilton County Schools has outsourced its school bus operations, including its drivers, to Durham School Services, the largest school transportation provider in the nation. District spokeswoman Amy Kutcher referred all questions about Walker’s record to Durham, saying that “legally, there is no way that we could discipline someone who is not our employee.”
Weak sauce, Amy. Your bosses may not have been able to do anything directly, but they could have told Durham to get Walker off the road–at least until he got some help. The behavior described by these parents suggests that Walker has some pretty severe mental problems. Had he addressed them, then there’s no question about it–five or six kids would still be alive for Thanksgiving weekend.
Walker was arrested on Monday night and currently faces charges of reckless endangerment, reckless driving, and five counts of vehicular homicide. He is presently in jail on $107,900 bond. As if he has a choice, he is cooperating with police. If convicted on all charges, he faces a minimum of seven years in prison, and a maximum of 32 years. If the accounts from the parents and the victims are even half true, anything less than 10 years would be a joke.
But from where I’m sitting, something will be very wrong if Walker isn’t the only one who has to answer in court for this tragedy. The school district and Durham School Services have to answer for allowing Walker to drive that bus in the first place when he had no business behind the wheel–and do so under oath.
(featured image courtesy Doug Strickland, Chattanooga Times Free Press)