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Bus driver placed on paid leave after accident

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SNOQUALMIE - The Snoqualmie Valley School District placed one of its bus drivers on administrative leave after an investigation revealed that a non-injury accident in December involving the driver could have been avoided.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on Dec. 15, 2003 the driver was operating an empty bus along State Route 202 toward North Bend when the bus went off the right-hand side of the road across the street from Snoqualmie Middle School and came to rest in a water-filled culvert. The driver was unharmed, but the accident caused about $10,000 in damage to the bus.

The driver stated they'd hit a depression in the road, which caused them to lose control of the bus and go into the culvert. The following day, the driver was placed on paid administrative leave while the district investigated the accident.

On Jan. 6, District Transportation Director Jim Garhart drafted a letter to the driver saying the accident review board determined the accident was preventable. The letter states such accidents are those "in which the driver failed to do everything within reason to prevent it."

The letter also stated that because of inconsistencies between statements, information and facts compiled during the investigation, the accident review board is recommending the person cease being a school-bus driver and that there should be administrative action.

Superintendent Rich McCullough said the district is still figuring out what to ultimately do with the driver, but said the accident review board's statement will weigh heavily on the district's decision.

"That is a pretty strong recommendation," McCullough said.

McCullough said previous incidents involving the driver have to be taken into account as the district decides what to do. A public information request filed by the Valley Record revealed that the same driver had been involved in one prior accident in 1998, and was investigated for their driving and behavior last May.

In 1998, the driver rear-ended a vehicle's trailer hitch while leaving Opstad Elementary School. The investigation concluded that the driver was not at fault in the accident, and that the incident could make the driver more aware of potential dangers on routes.

Last May, after witnesses and parents complained about the driver's erratic driving behavior, "nodding off" while driving and being allegedly verbally abusive toward children on a Fall City route, the driver was investigated and asked to take a drug test. The driver passed the drug test, but opted to drive another route. A union representative complained that the reassignment would be undue punishment unless the driver requested the change.

Following the investigation into the December incident, the accident review board determined that there were discrepancies between the driver's testimony and evidence it gathered from witnesses and a tape of the accident from the school-bus camera. In a review of the driver's testimony, the review board said the driver was heard to have been up late the night before, even though the driver said they were wide awake when the accident occurred. The review board also stated that the depression in the road on State Route 202 was not significant enough to have caused an accident. A review of the tape revealed that the driver stopped at a light they said they didn't stop at, and that the driver didn't take corrective measures to prevent the accident after they hit the depression in the road.

McCullough said that while the district found no definite finding of fault in the two previous incidents, placing the driver on leave was in the best interest of child safety after the third incident.

"It seems to suggest there is a pattern," he said. "Everybody's best interests are served by placing the employee on leave."

Further action by the district may be null pending a decision by the state regarding the driver's commercial driver's license to operate a school bus. All investigations are sent to the state for review and the state can decide to revoke the driver's commercial license. The district can reassign the driver to another department if they can no longer drive a bus.

The driver did not wish to comment for this story.

Editor's note: The Valley Record did not publish the name of the driver as no crime was committed and no parties were injured.

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