Far Rockaway leaders seek answers and oversight of privately owned school buses

Camron “Neno” Brown. Photo via GoFundMe

Camron “Neno” Brown. Photo via GoFundMe

By David Brand

In the weeks since a Far Rockaway second-grader was crushed and killed by the van that was supposed to take him home from school, local leaders have begun seeking information about the network of independent school buses and “church vans” that shuttle children to schools around the peninsula.

Camron “Neno” Brown, 7, and his sister Paris, 9, were traveling to their aunt’s home from P.S. 43 aboard a school bus operated by Elmer and Jennifer Transportation, a company that families pay to transport their children and that does not contract with the Department of Education.

The bus stopped on Gipson Street near Mott Avenue so that Camron and Paris could transfer to a different vehicle, a 1998 Ford van, that would take them the last leg of their trip home. But as Camron was walking alongside the bus, the van driver accelerated forward. The van pinned Camron against the bus and killed him.

Local leaders say they want to learn more about who oversees bus companies like Elmer and Jennifer.

“I would hope that if someone operates a school bus, whether its private or not, that they are vetted,” said Queens Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska. “People assume that the government regulates this and is on top of it, but I don’t know.”

A New York State Department of Transportation spokesperson said an investigation into the crash continues, but did not respond to a question about who was conducting the investigation.

Until earlier this week, Elmer and Jennifer Transportation advertised itself as a Department of Education “Approved NYC vendor” and featured a DOE logo on its website. A DOE spokesperson told the Eagle earlier this month that the city did not contract with the company and that the agency would “ask Elmer to remove the DOE logo from its website.” The company has not responded to several requests for comment.

On Friday, the company website was down.

School bus drivers who contract with local school districts and education departments, including the NYCDOE, must undergo thorough screening through the State Department of Education and complete an application and background check through the Department of Motor Vehicles Bus Driver Unit as part of a law known as Article 19-A.

Gaska questioned whether drivers for companies that don’t contract with cities or the state, like Elmer and Jennifer Transportation, have similarly stringent regulations.

“The interesting question is, are they regulated differently than the ones that work with the city?” he said. “I don’t know the answer. But are there different standards, and are the parents aware of that?”

Gaska likened the private vehicles to a “car service” because families pay the companies out of pocket, but said that, unlike a ride hail app or taxi company, the drivers are specifically transporting young children. The vehicles are also common among the Orthodox Jewish community in the Rockaway Peninsula, he said.

Gaska said he wonders which city or state agency — if any — is ultimately tasked with monitoring the network of buses carrying little children around the city.

“This is going to be musical chairs and one of these agencies is going to be left without a chair when the music stops,” Gaska said. “Some city or state or state agency screwed up. That’s what this sounds like.”

A “church van,” like the one that killed Camron Brown. Eagle photo by David Brand

A “church van,” like the one that killed Camron Brown. Eagle photo by David Brand

A vital function, with lingering questions

Milan Taylor, the director of the Far Rockaway Youth Task Force, said he was not familiar with the private vehicles but said they likely serve a vital function in the community, especially for parents and guardians who cannot bring their kids to and from school every day, and for children who are too young to take public transportation alone.

Camron qualified for school bus service through the DOE, but his sister was too old to qualify based on DOE standards. Camron’s aunt Maureen Brown told the Eagle earlier this month that the family chose to pay Elmer and Jennifer Transportation to drive both children to school together because she and Camron’s father Joseph Brown did not want to separate them. They were referred by a neighbor, she said.

“Only Camron was eligible for busing, but we weren’t going to let Camron ride alone,” Maureen Brown said.

She raised specific concerns about the company after she visited the school at dismissal time to give Elmer and Jennifer Transportation a check.

“The day I went to give him the check at school, the driver was outside in a van and I said to him, “Why are they going in a van and not a bus?’ and he told me, ‘The bus broke down today,’” Maureen Brown said.

“When I went into the van, none of the kids were strapped in,” she continued. “I said, ‘Kids, make sure you put on the seatbelt because if he stops, you’re going to go through the windshield.”

She also said the family did not know that Camron and Paris would have to transfer vehicles more than once.

Awaiting state action

In the wake of Camron’s death, advocates called on state lawmakers to pass a package of legislation to promote safe driving around school buses. The bills would increase fines for passing buses, using the money generated from the fines to fund driver education and adding school bus safety to the driver’s ed curriculum.

State Sen. Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr. highlighted these measures in a statement to the Eagle, but his office said they have not received complaints or inquiries about the private bus companies.

“[I] take safety-related issues regarding public and private school buses very seriously, especially because our children’s safety is involved,” he said. “We hope that these measures will someday become law, because when it comes to our children’s safety, no measure is too small to take.”

None of the measures would have prevented Camron’s death, however. Nor do they improve oversight of the private vehicle network so vital to the Far Rockaway community.

Staff for Councilmember Donovan Richards and Assemblymember Stacey Pheffer Amato said the two lawmakers are gathering information about the network of buses and will speak to the Eagle in the coming days.

Gaska, from CB14, said he hopes the elected officials and city agencies begin to take a closer look at the private vehicles.

“When you lose a child, it’s something you generally don’t recover from. It’s so unfortunate,” he said. “The larger question is: How is this regulated, and does there need to be more regulation?”