On Thursday, March 3, the Pendergasts of Middletown and Newport will return to the Statehouse in Providence to argue on behalf of keeping Rhode Island’s mandate that requires safety monitors on all school buses for grades kindergarten through 5.
The public hearing with the House Municipal Government Committee is scheduled to begin between 3 and 4 p.m. in Room 203, and the family has sprung into action trying to get parents, educators, school bus personnel and other advocates of the school bus safety law to attend.
It’s a scene the family has replayed many times since 1986, when the law was first passed after three children within an 18-month period throughout Rhode Island had been killed by their own school buses. One of those tragedies involved 6-year-old Vanessa Anne, a first-grader at Aquidneck Elementary School, daughter to Bill and Sophia Pendergast and the youngest of their four daughters when they lived in Middletown at the time.
“It seems to come up again more so when there’s an economic downturn,” reflected Bill Pendergast, now 70, retired from the Newport Police Department and living in Newport with Sophia. “It’s (about) costs and cutting costs … About two weeks into the legislative session every year, I go in to the state website and look … and sure enough, there it was again this year, though I was surprised at how early this one came out and I'm worried how fast it's moving.”
He refers to House Bill No. 5186 (An Act Relating to Education—Health and Safety of Pupils), introduced on Jan. 27 and referred to the House Municipal Government Committee. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Doreen Marie Costa (R-Dist. 31, Exeter, North Kingstown), with Rep. Daniel P. Gordon Jr. (R-Dist. 71, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton), Rep. J. Patrick O'Neill (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket), and Rep. Brian C. Newberry (R-Dist.r 48, North Smithfield, Burrillville) also attached as introducing the bill.
If passed, it would eliminate Rhode Island’s mandate for school bus monitors for kindergarten through grade 5 riders, leaving the matter up for cities and towns to decide to keep or cut.
The bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Doreen Marie Costa (R-Dist. 31, Exeter, North Kingstown) said the measure could help those cities and towns in dire financial straits right now. She said she received reports from some cities in northern Rhode Island seeking relief but declined to name those cities.
"I'm not saying we should pull bus monitors from anyone or that we should take bus monitors away from any cities and towns. This would be an option for cities and towns," Costa said. "And some are in real dire straits right now and are telling us they need some options."
Rhode Island reportedly is the only state nationwide to require that school bus monitors be on all school buses for grades K to 5.
Since successfully lobbying with a coalition of other families for school bus safety reform that, among other measures, included the requirement of having the second supervising adult on board, the Pendergast family has remained active in lobbying to keep the law in place.
Sophia and Bill Pendergast, along with daughter Julie Mott, of Middletown, and Elizabeth Clark — Julie’s own daughter of college age now — have concerns over the latest bill, as they watch it move quickly to a hearing early in the legislative session and have heard of little public outcry or public awareness.
“I very much fear that without people showing up on Thursday, this will be the end of school bus monitors,” Julie said. “People being present, standing before them, will make a difference.”
Sophia added, “They can just say ‘I do not support this’ and leave it at that. But it has to be parents who say to them, ‘You cannot do this to my child.’ ”
They are quick to point out, and news accounts support, that no children have been killed by school buses in Rhode Island with a bus monitor present since the law was passed in 1986, while between 1979 and 1986 at least one school bus fatality had occurred each year along with other non-fatal injuries.
“History tells us, statistics tell us, that if this gets passed, a child will be killed,” Julie maintained. She added, “And in 1985, children were not walking around with iPods and phones to their ears. And drivers passing school buses were not distracted talking on cell phones in 1985. Drivers and children are more distracted now and there’s an even greater need for that extra adult there now to look out for them.”
A founding member of FISST (Families Insisting on Safe Student Transportation), Sophia over the last 25 years has maintained her role as a vocal advocate on school bus safety and continues to receive contact from parents and others from the United States and Canada, she said, on a variety of issues ranging from bus monitors to mechanical issues and the screening of the drivers themselves.
She cites studies and statistics about driver distraction being a main cause of vehicular accidents.
She worries about the disruptions on board buses without that extra adult supervisor to ensure that bus riders remain well-behaved and don’t distract the bus driver.
She also worries about the General Assembly leaving it up to cities and towns as they fall on hard times to decide whether to keep or cut bus monitors. "No parent wants to see this happen to any child in Middletown or Providence or in Central Falls. We cannot allow buses to kill our children. Period."
In 1985, Sophia had later learned the bus driver was turned around trying to settle a sudden disruption among the students when the bus accelerated, struck and killed Vanessa. She was reportedly crossing in front of the bus, as the bus safety manuals had prescribed as a precaution back then, but she was crossing within the blind spot where drivers cannot see young children.
Julie, then 14, was at the scene where her sister had died, having been sent to meet her at the bus stop.
A mother now with children of her own, she hopes other parents in Rhode Island will join her in fighting to keep bus monitors a mandate.
“My parents have been fighting for this for 28 years. My father is now 70. He can’t do this forever,” Julie said. “It’s no longer about Vanessa and I’m no longer speaking about this as Vanessa’s sister. I’m talking about this as a mom now, with a 7-year-old of my own that I want to protect…This is no longer about what happened back then but what’s happening today — in a much, much more distracted world.”
The public hearing on House Bill 5186 is scheduled for Thursday, March 3, and is expected to begin between 3 and 4 p.m. in Room 203 at the Statehouse in Providence. Those wishing to speak or to register as being pro or con are advised to arrive beginning at 3 p.m. Those unable to attend may also contact the House Municipal Government Chairperson Rep. Jon Brien (D-District 50, Woonsocket) at 766-9887, Vice Chairperson Rep. Peter Martin (D-District 75, Newport) at 924-2402, or their local legislators. Click here for your local legislator's contact information.