Bus driver sues, claims students were in danger

A Montague school bus driver who expressed concern for the well-being of students after she said she witnessed ‘unsafe and unsafe practices’ by other drivers and policy violations by administrators, says that his comments were followed by retaliation and disciplinary action.

Now she is suing the school board and district officials.

Karen Moriarty, who was promoted to full-time conductor in 2020, said administrators and school board members turned a blind eye to a list of ‘unethical, even illegal’ actions that included failures school to test new bus drivers and transporting preschoolers without car seats, according to the lawsuit in Sussex County State Superior Court.

Instead of investigating her concerns last summer, Moriarty accuses the Montague Board of Education of illegally targeting her to be a whistleblower, taking her one step back on the salary guide and not not having promoted her to a position for which she was qualified, while sequentially promoting those administrators concerned.

The lawsuit, filed in late September, highlights the transgressions of former acting superintendent John Nittolo, former vice principal James Andriac, who is now acting superintendent and principal, Danielle Conklin, transportation coordinator at the time, who is now Andriac’s secretary, and the school board and its president Barbara Holstein.

Montague board attorney Joseph Garcia said that while school policy restricts him from commenting on ongoing litigation, he said the district complies with federal and state regulations regarding student transportation. .

“The district has not recently been cited for any violations by the New Jersey Department of Education, and the district’s buses have passed state inspections,” he said Thursday.

Nittolo, in an email Thursday, said that while many of the issues Moriarty detailed would have taken place prior to his involvement in the district – he was appointed acting superintendent/director in May 2021 – while he was there, he reportedly “never turned a blind eye to security”.

“When Ms. Moriarty requested meetings, she was met, listened to, valued and heard,” he said. “If there were any issues raised by any member of staff, including transportation members, the team responded and attempted to make any necessary improvements or adjustments,” Nittolo said.

Holstein directed comments to Garcia, Andriac and Conklin did not respond to requests for comment.

Moriarty began her part-time job as a driver for the district in March 2019 before achieving full-time status in September 2020, where she provided daily transportation for the K-8 school, which has 290 students. , and transporting students to High Point Regional High School, Sussex Charter School for Technology and Sussex County Technical School.

The district transitioned from contracted services with the First Student bus company at the start of the 2020 school year to a district-run bus program, with the board purchasing four school buses. in a move that officials say would save the district money in the long run. The school, like others in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioned from in-person to remote learning in early 2021 due to an increase in coronavirus cases before to fully resume in person by the end of the school year.

Unsupervised students, crowded buses

In July 2021, Moriarty said she outlined nearly 20 student safety concerns in a lengthy email to the school board and personally notified administrators and board members of the alleged violations. Among them were drivers who did not inspect their buses before driving and making illegal turns and dangerous maneuvers. Moriarty also said she had to stop at dangerous intersections to drop off students, transport preschoolers without car seats, and drive crowded buses with bus attendants sitting on the ground and students not wearing seat belt.

The district had no policy prohibiting parents or guardians from leaving children alone at bus stops and Moriarty said Conklin told him to drop children off at bus stops regardless of whether a parent or guardian was present. or not.

The district also had no written transportation policy to protect drivers from parental allegations, the suit says.

Moriarty raised concerns that the district did not regularly maintain buses or repair broken two-way radio systems; train bus drivers and helpers or conduct evacuations as required by state law; implement protocols for accidents or medical emergencies; or keep buses sanitized according to COVID protocols.

On Thursday, Garcia reiterated his inability to comment specifically on Moriarty’s complaint, but said, “We’re seeing more and more cases where disgruntled employees are trying to artificially create whistleblower lawsuits.” The action, he said, is a way to “scare” public employers into using taxpayers’ money to pay them to leave.

“Council looks forward to the opportunity to present its defense in court,” he said.

Moriarty said the retaliation extended to his duties when he was told to take on custodial duties without additional compensation. When expressing concern about the new duties, she said Andriac “harassed and bullied” her and threatened to drop her part-time.

Andriac, who took over as Acting Superintendent/Director in June 2021also informed Moriarty that he was placing her a step back on the salary guide, saying the district no longer bases step placement on longevity or experience, according to the lawsuit.

Moriarty said she also applied for the post of transport coordinator, which she said was more qualified than the other applicants, but was passed over for a man – a decision she said was due in part to her gender and a violation of the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act.

Table unanimously approved James Cicalese as transport coordinator during a meeting in August 2022.

Moriarty’s lawsuit claims that following the district’s ‘flagrant’ retaliation against her for her whistleblowing activities, she was forced to take unpaid sick leave and suffered emotional and physical distress, including anxiety , depression, insomnia and high blood pressure. She seeks unspecified damages for lost and future wages as well as pain and suffering.

At its Sept. 28 meeting, the board approved a transportation employee handbook and a bus accident procedure manual that the school administrator said would be used “as part of of our plan to improve our transport service”, according to school board minutes.

Six board members also interviewed two candidates to fill a seat left vacant after the departure of board vice-chairman Denise Bogle in mid-September. The council was split 3-3, and with none of the candidates obtaining enough votes, the seat will remain vacant until four votes are obtained for a candidate. It was not immediately clear whether a board member is expected to be elected at a meeting on October 26, which has moved from a workshop to a regular meeting with measures underway, according to the instructions.

Lori Comstock can be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.

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