Second-grader’s death raises questions about ‘church van’ school transportation

Large vans like the Dodge Ram Wagon transport children from school bus stops to their homes. Photo by IFCAR via Wikimedia Commons

Large vans like the Dodge Ram Wagon transport children from school bus stops to their homes. Photo by IFCAR via Wikimedia Commons

By David Brand

Seven-year-old Cameron Brown, his family called him Nino, was walking away from a yellow school bus when a large van lurched forward and pinned him against the bus on a Far Rockaway street on April 17.

The van was supposed to take Cameron to his grandmother’s home. Instead, it crushed and killed him.

“We’re trying to cope,” Cameron’s father Joseph Brown told the Eagle Thursday. Brown and neighbors are planning a vigil in Far Rockaway.

In the wake of Cameron’s death, state lawmakers have coalesced around harsher punishments for drivers who bypass school buses. But The 22-year-old driver of the van that killed Cameron may not have been trying to pass the bus illegally.

The van driver was tasked with transporting students from the bus stop to their homes. He remained at the scene and was not arrested.

The driver operated a privately owned “church van” — a large conversion van with several rows of seats that is not necessarily affiliated with a church. The informal network of vans is a vital means of transportation for Far Rockaway elementary school students too young to travel home alone, but it is unclear what city or state agency, if any, has oversight over the vehicles and their drivers.

The van owners contract with local families to drive kids from schools or Department of Education school bus stops to their homes. The DOE confirmed that the van that struck Cameron was not affiliated with the city.

The Administration for Children’s Services does not oversee the informal network of vans or certify the drivers of the privately owned vehicles, according to the agency. Nor does the DOE.

New York City public school students qualify for stop-to-school bus transportation based on their grade-level and how far they live from school. All students in kindergarten through second grade qualify for school bus transportation if they live more than a half-mile from school.

Third- through sixth-graders who live between a half-mile and mile from school get full fare Metrocards but not school bus transportation. Third- through sixth-graders who live more than a mile from school can still take the school bus.

The buses do not provide door to door service, however. They pick up and drop off at designated bus stops where several students hop on in the morning and get off in the afternoon.

That’s where the church vans come in, taking over the last leg of the trip from school by taking students to their homes.

Schools maintain transportation plans for their students, but they are often vague. Brown’s school, P.S. 43 in Far Rockaway, declined to comment on his death and referred questions to the New York City Department of Transportation.

“School buses drop kids off all over the place,” said a staff member who answered the phone at the school.

The New York City DOT said they do not have oversight of the private vans and directed questions to the state Department of Transportation. The state DOT responded to the Eagle’s requests for comment, but did not provide information about licensing or oversight.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles does license the drivers — all drivers of vehicles that carry more than 16 passengers must obtain a commercial driver's license — and the vehicles must pass inspection, but it remains unclear whether the DOT conducts additional inspections.