The final report on just what caused the fatal school bus crash April 18 that claimed the lives of two students from Hoffman-Boston Elementary School is still weeks away. Yet in a special meeting Monday night, county officials reassured parents that school buses are safe for children to ride.
"In this kind of situation, it's kind of routine for the kids to get counseling but not for the parents," said County Board Member Walter Tejada, who hosted the meeting along with representatives of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "They just needed somebody to listen to them, and we heard that a lot of people felt like government officials hadn't listened to them fully."
The school bus collided with a commercial garbage truck at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road, according to police, as it was taking children to class. Bystanders and passengers on a nearby Metrobus stopped to help get the children to safety. The bus driver was thrown from the wreckage but ignored medical attention to pull children from the bus. The truck driver also sustained severe injuries. Police said witnesses reported the bus was turning left when it collided with the truck, which was approaching the bus in the opposite lane. The bus came to rest in the road's left turn lane. Arlington Police Chief Doug Scott said it appeared neither driver had much time to react.
Both drivers survived, but student Lilibeth Gomez died at the scene. Harrison Orosco, 7, died days later in a nearby hospital. According to state police Sgt. Terry Licklider, there is no indication of which driver was at fault. Tejada said many parents are now worried about allowing their children to ride the school buses each morning.
"They're wondering about putting their kids on the bus and whether it is safe to do so," said Tejada. "Right now, we are really looking at how we can ensure that this type of thing doesn't happen again."
The meeting was geared toward members of Arlington's Latin American community. At Hoffman-Boston, Latinos account for 38 percent of students, according to the school district's statistics.
The crash sparked national questions about the safety of school buses. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived hours afterwards to investigate the scene. The final report from state and local police, according to NTSB investigator Debbie Hersman, will be used to make recommendations on future safety regulations. Hersman said the United States has seen 18 fatal school bus accidents in the last 15 years. A study of traffic records, police said, found that the intersection where the accident occurred has seen 15 traffic accidents between 2003 and 2005.
To ensure the safety of students getting to school, Tejada said, many parents are calling for a left turn light to be installed. But that change, he added, could take time and cutting through a lot of red tape.
"We don't really know if anything is going to make the intersection safer," he said. "But it's a strict criteria to get a new light put there."
Part of the problem is that Columbia Pike is a state road.
"VDOT has a say in the matter," he said.
That red tape includes a traffic study and a lengthy review by state officials, Tejada said.
Along with taking input from the public, Tejada said Monday's meeting was also intended as a way to reach out to the school's immigrant families — families that might be afraid to bring problems to a government employee otherwise.
"There has been some hesitation on the part of some people to ask a government official questions," said Tejada. "In Arlington, we try to be an accessible government, one that isn't afraid to come into the community. For some people, that might not make a whole lot of difference, but for the immigrant population, it can."