11 kids hurt as school bus hurtles off road

The driver has a troubling record, with seven incidents since 2002, the Sheriff's Office says.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM and LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writers
Published September 5, 2007

RIVERVIEW - The school bus swerved onto the sidewalk and hurtled down a slope into trees and brush. Inside, kids screamed as they slammed into windows. The driver tumbled down the bus stairwell.

Afterward, as 11 students were loaded into ambulances with minor injuries Tuesday morning, the driver, Eugenie Shuler, told officials that she swerved to avoid an armadillo in the road, then fell out of her seat as her improperly buckled seat belt gave way.

But the 63-year-old Shuler, who was cited for not wearing a seat belt and for careless driving, has a troubled driving record. Since 2006, she has been involved in four traffic incidents, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

It's unclear whether Shuler was at fault in any of the recent incidents, because the Sheriff's Office could not access its computer files Tuesday. Shuler declined to comment.

There were prior accidents too.

"(School officials) were tracking her driving record," said schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. "They keep an eye on anyone who has multiple accidents."

The crash occurred at Still River Drive and South Falkenburg Road. It happened around 9 a.m., and the students, all from Giunta Middle School, suffered bumps and bruises but no serious injuries.

More than one of the 37 students said that Shuler was talking on a cell phone as she lost control of the vehicle.

Shuler denied it, and even told Cobbe that she doesn't own a cell phone, Cobbe said.

Sheriff's deputies said they believed Shuler after interviewing her and students on the bus.

"She was NOT on the cell phone as reported by students," said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter in a news release.

And yet students told the Times that is what they saw.

Just after the crash, Devon Hays, 12, stood alone on the sidewalk. He said he felt sick and shaky.

He said he saw Shuler talking on a cell phone when the bus left the road.

The bus didn't have seat belts for students, so Devon said he saw a friend, also 12, fly out of her seat and smack into a window.

"I just pray my friend's okay," he said. He put his hands to his face and cried.

At Tampa General Hospital, Alveria Hawthorne stood waiting for test results for her 12-year-old daughter, who suffered a neck injury in the crash.

She said her daughter saw Shuler on the cell phone before the crash. In fact, she said, her daughter told her Shuler often talked on the phone as she drove.

Kitana Hammonds, 11, hit her head but was otherwise uninjured.

She couldn't say whether Shuler was on the phone, but she did see that the driver had only one hand on the wheel as the bus jumped the curb. And she, too, said that Shuler often used the phone while she drove.

"People were screaming" as the bus sped down the slope, Kitana said.

"I didn't know what was going on. My dad told me when something bad happens just don't panic, so I tried not to panic."

All students were released from area hospitals by the afternoon.

The district is monitoring all bus drivers involved in 313 "preventable accidents" over the last two years, Cobbe said. The infractions range widely, from today's crash to a cracked mirror from hitting a poll.

Others infractions are considered nonpreventable.

"If there's nothing (the drivers) can do to prevent it, you really can't hold that against them," Cobbe said.

The district has a bus-accident board that meets monthly to review accidents and recommend discipline, if necessary. Cobbe said some severe driving errors would result in an automatic firing. Drivers also are terminated if they accumulate 13 points against their licenses.

Shuler has worked on and off for the school district since 1981.

The Sheriff's Office reported seven traffic incidents since 2002 in which she was involved but might or might not have been at fault. In all but one case she was driving a school bus; one might have involved her personal vehicle.

Cobbe could not say whether the district was aware of all of the incidents listed by the Sheriff's Office.

Cobbe noted that the school district is overhauling its transportation department, following an outside audit that found many inefficiencies.

Hillsborough faces a chronic shortage of bus drivers. Currently, it has 118 vacancies, or about 10 percent of the total drivers needed.

Pinellas County also faces a shortage, and is about 85 drivers short, said school spokeswoman Andrea Zahn.

The Pinellas School Board assesses points for its bus drivers' moving violations and preventable accidents, recommending a three-day suspension for a driver who accumulates 8 to 11 points in one year, Zahn said.

Drivers who rack up 12 or more points in a year can be fired.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442. Times staff writers Donna Winchester, Jan Wesner, Skip O'Rourke, and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.