School Bus Seat Belts: A Six-year Struggle

March 29, 2006, West Brook High School bus crash

I first met Brad Brown and Steve Forman in the summer of 2010, driving four hours from Austin to Beaumont. Both men were goofy in their own ways, joking around before the interview began. They seemed like great dads, and it saddened me to know we would soon be picking apart the details of an emotional wreck that involved their teenage daughters.

On March 29, 2006, what was meant to be a 70-mile trip to a soccer tournament turned into something the town of Beaumont and West Brook High School will likely never forget. The bus carrying a team of more than 20 girls swerved, trying to avoid debris from a truck on a rainy U.S. 90 in Liberty County and overturned. There were no seat belts on board.

Brown’s 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, was one of two girls killed in the crash, thrown from her seat (Alicia Bonura, 18, also died). Forman’s daughter, Allison, 17, was severely injured, trapped under the bus for more than an hour before rescue.

My original story with these parents came just before the law they helped create went into effect. After the accident, they had worked with the state legislature to require all new school buses purchased in Texas to have lap-shoulder belts – something they felt could have prevented their tragedy. The requirement would remain in place, as long as funding was available.

West Brook High girls soccer team, 2006

Over the years since, the state’s financial situation shifted, forcing all agencies to make drastic cuts. The Texas Education Agency, which administered the fund, slashed its amount from $10 million to what was eventually $2.5 million.

That was the story in 2010. We reported why the program was dealt this blow. Slow implementation of certain guidelines by the Texas Transportation Institute and the Legislative Budget Board, then severe accounting decisions by TEA. The remaining funds were not what those parents had in mind, but at least they could help some schools out.

Two years later, I began to wonder what happened to the money, whether districts had taken advantage of what the state was offering. To my surprise, only 12 districts had applied for the funding. Even more surprising – only four of those districts received the money, and their total sum was less than $500,000.

Gov. Rick Perry visits a bus crash memorial outside West Brook High in 2007, signing the seat belt law on site. (Dave Ryan, AP/HC)

Over the course of three months, numerous public information requests, and thousands of records, the next part of this story began to develop. The reason many of the districts did not receive funding – they did not submit all of the proper paperwork. TEA had no record of telling those districts why they would not be awarded the grants or what they could do to complete their application to obtain the funds.

A few of those districts ended up eventually buying new buses without belts, because they did not have access to that extra funding. Putting belts on buses can be about $6,500, in addition to at least $60,000 for the bus itself – not cheap, at all.

Most of the “unclaimed” $2 million remaining was swept into other programs TEA deemed priorities – fine arts, early childhood, and English language proficiency. After we revealed those discoveries to Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville – the lawmaker behind this program – he saw how his work with those Beaumont families years ago was falling apart. He now plans to call on TEA to reconsider the program and also ask the legislature to re-fund it.

Allison Forman

Two years since our initial interview, I traveled back to Beaumont to talk to Brown and Forman again. It had been six years since the accident, and they are still dealing with the aftermath. Forman’s daughter, Allison, is living with the effects of her injuries. Her left arm is now fused at an angle, and she has limited use of her hand. As Brown moved past that point of the interview, he started to light up when speaking about Allison’s future. Last year, she graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in architecture. She is now working on her graduate studies in Austin and preparing for her wedding this fall.

Ashley Brown

Turning to Brown, it was clear the future was something he had considered many times over the years. When asked what he thought his daughter, Ashley, would be doing now if she had survived the wreck, he said he “gave up on the ‘what if’ game long ago.” Wondering about Ashley’s future would not change anything. Real change, he said, would only come by keeping her memory alive with this law. Like Lucio, he plans to work toward its restoration next session to make sure no parent ever has to experience his pain.

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Republican Rick Perry is Governor of Texas. Two Republicans represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, and Texas has 32 representatives in the U.S. House: 20 Republicans and 12 Democrats.
 
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