Bus attack questions? We have answers
Published: Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 6:17 p.m.
People who watched the video of the Jan. 6 school bus beating have asked many questions. Here are some answers:
Q: Who is the driver?
A: Phillip Cosenza, 58, was a full-time replacement bus driver. Replacement drivers fill in on routes when co-workers are out sick or on leave.
Cosenza was hired Jan. 26, 2011, and was in the final weeks of his one-year probationary period when the Jan. 6 beating took place, district officials said. It was his first time on that route, which was known to be a problem route.
Cosenza, whose last known address is in the gated On Top of the World retirement community, had only two minor marks on his record — he scratched a bus mirror and a gate. He could not be reached for comment Thursday
Q: What happened to him?
A: Cosenza resigned the next day. He belonged to the bus drivers' union, the International Union of Allied Painters and Trades, better known as IUPAT, according to Jane Roach, the union's business agent.
Q: What would have happened if he hadn't resigned?
A: Philip Leppert, the district's executive director of human resources, said there would have been an investigation. Leppert is unsure if that would have led to a firing.
Q: What was going on outside — and inside — the bus?
A: The Star-Banner has posted only a short excerpt of the video; showing any more would serve to identify the children, which the paper is not doing because of their ages.
The full, 40-minute videotape shows it was dark outside. It was about 7 a.m. The bus is equipped with infrared cameras. The infrared images are much lighter than what Cosenza could see with the naked eye.
Cosenza had picked up students along State Road 200. Students were loud and jumping over seats, though district officials said it would have been difficult for Cosenza to see in the dark.
Cosenza looked back and yelled: "Hey! Hey! What's going on?"
Soon thereafter, Cosenza stopped the bus, unbuckled and walked a few rows back. He yelled: "Sit down." The students settled down somewhat, but the yelling erupted again as soon as he sat back down and buckled up.
It also was foggy that morning. He was a new driver, on a new route, with unruly children — some of whom had been suspended for fighting on that same bus route in November.
Students started chanting names, walking around, smiling, taunting and trash talking. Then, in an instant, there were screams and a mad scramble toward the back of the bus. The change was sudden.
It went from an unruly raucous to frantic pandemonium in a split second. Though the video does not clearly show what sparked the melee, Sheriff's Office reports state one student threw a shoe at another. It appears a group of students were trying to keep the victim from sitting down.
By the time the fight escalated, Cosenza was on Southwest 49th Avenue, a narrow road that leads four miles from Southwest 95th Street to just north of County Road 484.
Cosenza was driving the only elementary student on the bus, assigned to a seat behind the driver, to Marion Oaks Elementary, which starts earlier than the middle school.
It was still foggy and there was no place to reasonably get off the road. He was two miles, or about two minutes, from the school when the fight escalated.
Q: What did the bus driver do correctly?
A: District and IUPAT officials said Cosenza followed protocol once the two-minute, free-for-all beating started.
In the video, as the fight escalated, the driver seems unaffected by the violence behind him. He continued driving while the fight continued, with five girls and two boys repeatedly beating the victim in the head. Oncoming passing cars could been seen out of bus windows.
But Tommy Crosby, the district's executive director of support services, who oversees bus transportation, said Cosenza's main responsibility is to protect all 67 children on the 89-passenger bus.
Though girls pleaded with the driver to stop the bus after the fight escalated, Cosenza handled the situation correctly by getting to the school, which was just a few miles away, Crosby said.
The driver radioed Marion Oaks administrators of the incident.
Crosby said stopping the bus in an unsafe location could create an even worse situation. If children were exiting the bus, they could end up stepping into traffic, for instance.
As soon as the bus arrived, the injured girl's busmates dragged her to the front of the bus, where she crumpled in the stairwell. After an unnamed administrator immediately calmed the situation, the bus driver stood up and yelled at the students, pointing his finger, clearly enraged.
"You guys are embarrassing," he screamed at them.
Cosenza then demanded to see the students who had gathered in the aisle, the ones who "wanted a piece of the action."
Roach, from the drivers' union, said she spoke with Cosenza briefly before he resigned. Cosenza said he did not immediately realize the fight was so violent. Once he did, he radioed the school and headed there as safely as possible.
Q: What did the bus driver do wrong?
A: Union and district officials agree that Cosenza should have gotten better control of the children on the bus much earlier in the route, though that can be easier said than done with middle school students.
Roach said Cosenza does share some of the blame for how it was handled, though in reality the district could have done more to help him on a troubled route.
"I don't think he (Cosenza) is 100 percent to blame, I think he was 50 percent to blame" for not controlling the raucous behavior before it escalated. "He needed help on that bus."
Roach said she hopes a lesson can be learned: District transportation managers, specifically a zone manager, should be required to ride on problem routes with new drivers.
And bus aides? They are used only on routes that include disabled students.
Crosby said Cosenza should have done more to keep children on the increasingly rowdy bus from fighting. But at least Cosenza did the right thing by getting all the students safely to the school.
Q: Why didn't the driver break up the fight?
A: On the video, it appears Cosenza doesn't want to get involved, taking what appears to be a hands-off approach. According to union officials, that is exactly what the driver was doing.
Roach said School District policy forbids any bus driver from touching a child, no matter what. She said a bus driver can only attempt to break up a fight verbally, ordering those fighting to separate.
"We have had bus drivers and aides who have been terminated after they touched a child while breaking up a fight," Roach said.
Q: Will the district change any bus training or other transportation policies?
A: Kevin Christian, district spokesman, said he doubts any policies would be changed. He said fights happen, and the district has a firm policy in place regarding bus safety.
Christian said that though it's terrible that a 13-year-old was beaten unconscious, the media is trying to make Cosenza out to be a villain because he didn't do more.
"The students are the ones who are responsible," he said, referring to the seven being prosecuted.
Crosby said additional training may be necessary, though he does not expect policy changes. Christian noted that bus violence is down since the 2010-11 year.
Q: What discipline do the seven alleged attackers facing?
A: Mark Vianello, the district's executive director of student services, said his office is completing discipline packets and will recommend that the School Board expel them.
All children expelled from the School District can receive educational services, which means they can enroll at an alternative school, such as Silver River Marine Institute.
Vianello said parents of the seven students were informed they also could home school their children, put them in virtual school, or try to enroll them in a private school.
The board will make its decision on Feb. 28.
Q: What is the liability of the school district and the bus driver?
A: The victim in the case could have the basis for a lawsuit against the school district, according to Joseph W. Little, professor of law emeritus at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He said the victim could argue "the driver was negligent (in) not coming to the assistance of the person at risk, or that the school district was negligent in training the driver," or both.
The School Board, as a government entity, is protected under sovereign immunity, which means the state and its entities cannot be sued for negligent behavior. But the Florida Legislature waived that clause and individuals can seek up to $200,000.
If the victim wanted to seek damages from the School Board, she would have to send a notice of intent six months before she filed a lawsuit. Little said this would give the government time to investigate the matter and possibly decide whether to settle before legal action commenced.
"The basic liability of the school district would be $200,000 if the action was proved against the school district," Little said.