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I-Team: Exposing problems with wheels falling off school buses in Florida

Posted at 9:35 AM, Feb 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-28 18:13:11-05

The I-Team found more problems with loose wheels on Florida school buses.

We discovered nine brand new 2018 Bluebird buses in Lee county, all had loose lug nuts, information that doesn't sit well with parents.

"Well that's pretty alarming, we have kids you expect them to be safe", says Hazel Walker

RELATED: Safety Concerns: Wheels fall off moving school buses within days of each other

"I'm a parent. I lost a son because of a car accident and when you're talking school buses you're supposed to be taking care of these kids and that's just wrong," Bob Bushnell tells us.

State records reveal the state's Department of Education was well aware of a problem with loose Bluebird bus wheels, but Lee County's school transportation director tells us, they weren't notified by the state until three months after Hillsborough County Schools brought it to the state's attention.

Lee County was aware of an issue following the Hillsborough cases, but first learned about those cases through the Bluebird sales representative and not the DOE. Lee County's transportation director made sure all wheels were properly tightened. 

Our previous investigation revealed the problem was discovered back in August last year in Hillsborough county. 

We found two cases where wheels flew off the buses while they were in motion.   

In one case one wheel fell off. One working day later, two wheels fell off of a bus.  

That's not all. After further inspection, we previously discovered at least 20 others in Hillsborough had loose wheels.  

What do all of the incidents have in common? They were all brand new 2018 Bluebird buses. Executives at Bluebird refused to interview with us.

Hillsborough's School Transportation Director Jim Beekman was relieved no kids were on board.  

Reporter: "Have you been satisfied with the way they (Bluebird) responded to that?"
Beekman: "We have not gotten a definitive answer why it happened."

Reporter:  "How serious is this problem?"
Beekman: "Well you know if one vehicle had one loose wheel, that's one thing. But when you have a couple districts and multiple issues, to me it needs to be addressed and needs to be looked at."

Hillsborough school employees notified the state's department of education two days after their second incident on August 28, 2017, all so the state could warn other districts that have 2018 Bluebirds.

Even though the DOE knew about the Hillsborough cases and pattern of loose wheels as early as August 30, 2017, state records reveal the DOE didn't notify Pinellas County Schools until nearly two months after they were informed.  

It was also eight days after we asked the DOE to see their notifications sent out to districts with new Bluebird buses.

Pinellas County has 40 2018 Bluebird buses. Their transportation director declined to interview with us, but says they had no loose wheels in their batch.

When we asked Hillsborough's director Beekman who should be held accountable, he responded, "Whoever's at fault, but we haven't determined that." Beekman insists it has to be a manufacturer issue.

In the midst of all this, we discovered the state's DOE Senior Education Program Director, Thomas Kevin Snowden, resigned in lieu of getting fired. 

And we found the communications team for the DOE lied about it.

When we asked about Snowden's departure, Audrey Walden, a DOE media relations rep, writes "while we do not typically comment on personnel matters, we can confirm that he resigned for personal reasons unrelated to buses".

But after digging deeper we discovered Snowden, whose job would have been to alert the other districts, was getting fired.

Records state, "dismissal is suggested".

One email indicates "failure to ensure accurate work products", "failure to properly supervise staff", and "failure to use readily available information to solve problems".  

In fact, DOE's Chief of Staff already typed up his dismissal papers, then crossed it out with a pen stating he "resigned in lieu of dismissal."

Back in Hillsborough, Beekman shows us new lug nut locks he's been testing on one of his school buses.

He's now looking at getting them for all of their buses.

"So even if one gets loose the other would hold it in place, so they're buddy locked to each other."

The lug nut locks cost about $100 per bus.

Beekman is pushing for the state to make it mandatory that all new buses get them statewide.

"It's very inexpensive when you look at it. And it adds that extra measure of safety and I think it's worth the investment."

Beekman is traveling to Tallahassee in March to present the lug nut locks idea and their previous issues to a state committee. We will bring you developments on this story as we get them.