HOUSTON – School buses back on the road are symbolic of the new school year, but their return can be heart-wrenching for some, especially a group of Houston-area moms.
“I start reliving it all over again,” Sheanine Chatman said.
In September 2015, Chatman lost her daughter, Janiecia, when the Houston Independent School District bus she was traveling in tumbled off an overpass along the 610 South Loop.
It’s a day Chatman will never forget and still leaves her longing for memories she will never have.
“I’ll never get to see my daughter graduate. I’ll never get to see her get married. I’ll never get to see her children, none of that,” she said.
Melody Haskett remembers that morning as if it was yesterday. She lost her 17-year-old daughter, Mariya, in the same accident.
“When they said something had happened, I merely thought it was something that had happened at school, not the bus,” Haskett said.
Ella Williams’ twins, Brandon and LaKeisha, were also on the bus that morning, but miraculously survived. But according to Williams, the pain of that day still haunts her family.
Williams’ twins and Janiecia rode the bus together that morning.
“And the last thing I remember (Janiecia) saying (was), ‘bye Ms. Ella,’ and she told me she loved me, too,” Williams said. “My kids got injured, but I still feel like I lost a child, too.”
She said her twins have survivor’s guilt and wonder why their friend died but they lived.
For all their pain and loss, Haskett and the other moms want to make sure their loss was not in vain.
“Hopefully, someone will listen that there is a danger out there that no one is talking about,” Haskett said.
The lack of three-point lap safety belts in school buses is the danger to which the mothers are referring.
“I see a lot of districts that are buying school buses with three-point seat belts and then there are the ones that opt out,” Chatman said.
Senate Bill 693, passed in the last legislature, required that all school districts purchasing new buses, beginning with 2018 models, include three-point seat belts. However, the districts can also opt out if they do not have the funds.
More than a month ago, Channel 2 Investigates reached out to several school districts to identify how many of their buses are equipped with safety belts, including three-point safety belts.
The school districts include HISD, Cy-Fair, Katy, Humble, Alief and Fort Bend.
Here is what our requests revealed:
Humble ISD has 271 buses. Of those, 65 have seat belts, one of which is a three-point safety belt. The district says all new buses purchased will have three-point seat belts.
Alief ISD has 347 buses. Of those buses, 86 have lap belts only and an additional 27 have three-point belts.
Katy ISD has 626 buses; 193 of those buses have lap belts. The district says all new buses purchased will have three-point seat belts.
Fort Bend has 513 buses (with 39 of those designated for auction or grant destruction this fall.) Of the 513 still in operation, 111 have lap belts.
In HISD, there are 1,132 buses. There are 420 with lap belts and 173 with three-point safety belts.
In Cy-Fair, there are 1,042 buses; 254 of them have safety belts, of which 84 are three-point safety belts.
Cy-Fair ISD has taken on an aggressive stance on this issue under the leadership of Bill Powell, the assistant superintendent who oversees a transportation system that rivals HISD in size.
All districts mentioned above have buses with three point safety belts, except Katy and Fort Bend. Katy tells Channel 2 Investigates buses purchased in the future will have three-point safety belts. Fort Bend is still considering the matter.
“Most districts don’t transport near the percentage of students Cy-Fair does,” Powell said.
Powell added that the district will have another 93 buses with three-point safety belts on the roads by late September.
“There is no doubt that Cy-Fair is taking an aggressive approach to ensure that all of their buses in the near future have lap belts inside of them,” he said.
But not all school districts are the same, in fact, Powell said what it boils down to is money and exactly where to spend it.
“They are now struggling with, ‘OK, do we spend another $6,000 to $10,000 per bus for seat belts? Or do we spend that money on security vestibules or metal detectors?’” he said.
It's a challenging struggle, considering the recent images of tragedy on campuses close to home and beyond.
But it’s the off-campus safety of children that concerns these mothers who are forever bonded by heartache. They realize the role that a three-point safety belt can play in saving a life.
“We talk to each other every day and we don’t say, 'Oh, it’s not going to happen again,’ we simply say, ‘When is it going to happen again?’ because no one hears the cry,” Haskett said.