By David Brand
The body of the boy crushed and killed between a privately owned school bus and van in April is still at the city morgue. His family needs some money to pay for a funeral, and they want answers from the city and state.
Second-grader Camron “Neno” Brown was killed while walking next to a school bus he had just exited in order to transfer to a van that would take him to his aunt’s home in Far Rockaway after school on April 17. Camron, 7, was a student at P.S. 43.
The tragic situation is further complicated because Camron’s mother is stuck in Jamaica. She traveled to her native country to sort out her residency status, but was barred from returning to the United States, the family said. They haven’t buried him yet.
“It’s just one of those times when money is not available,” Camron’s aunt Maureen Brown said.
Both the bus and van that crushed Camron were operated by Elmer and Jennifer Transportation, one company in a network of privately owned vehicles that families rely on to transport children to and from school in many parts of the city, including communities along the Rockaway Peninsula.
The 22-year-old driver of the van accelerated forward and crushed Camron against the bus, according to the NYPD. The driver remained on the scene and was not arrested.
Two-and-a-half months later, it remains unclear how the city or state conduct oversight of privately owned vehicles like the bus and van that killed Camron.
A state Department of Transportation spokesperson said the agency oversees licensing for school buses. But the two vehicles involved were not necessarily considered school buses. They do not contract with the Department of Education to shuttle students, and families pay the company out of pocket.
Local District Leader Lew Simon called on community members to advocate for answers about oversight at a memorial for Camron in May.
“[Let people know] what’s going on here, because not everyone knows unless you speak up, and bring 10 neighbors,” Simon said in video provided by Maureen Brown. “The madder you get people, the faster you’ll get some action.”
The state DOT told the Eagle in May that an investigation was ongoing into Camron’s death, but declined to provide additional information or say who was conducting the investigation.
“Any vehicle providing school transportation of children is required to have a valid NYSDOT Bus Inspection,” a DOT spokesperson said in May. “The tragic incident in Rockaway, N.Y. is part of an ongoing investigation and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
On Tuesday, the agency cited that initial statement without providing more information.
Searching for answers about oversight
Simon says the Department of Education has a responsibility to protect students as they travel to and from school. And he said families shouldn’t have to pay to transport their children to school.
“They’re paying all this extra money because the Department of Education won’t do it. The Department of Education should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “I have kids in my district who live in Rockaway and who go to Ozone Park schools and they have to fend for themselves.
“I have kids here who can’t afford to take private transportation,” he added.
All public school students in kindergarten through second grade qualify for school bus transportation through the DOE if they live more than a half-mile from school. Camron, a second-grader, qualified for bus service because of his grade level, but his sister Paris, 9, was too old to qualify.
Maureen Brown said the family chose to pay Elmer and Jennifer Transportation to drive the children to school together because she and Camron’s father Joseph Brown did not want to separate them.
“Only Camron was eligible for busing, but we weren’t going to let Camron ride alone,” Maureen Brown told the Eagle. But there were red flags early on.
She said she visited the school to pay the bus company and saw children sitting in the van without seatbelts. She told them to buckle up so they don’t fly through the windshield, she said.
She did not know the kids would travel in a van instead of a bus or that they would transfer between different vehicles, she said.
Elmer and Jennifer Transportation also advertised itself as a “DOE-approved vendor” on its website.
The Department of Education said the bus company did not contract with the DOE, however. A DOE spokesperson told the Eagle the agency would tell Jennifer and Elmer Transportation to remove the DOE logo and misleading statement from its website. P.S. 43 declined to comment.
Elmer and Jennifer Transportation shut down its website a few days later in May. The company has not responded to phone calls or emails.
The Browns’ lawyer Raymond Ragues also said the DOE bears responsibility because school staff instruct children to board the buses, even though the bus operators may not have a formal relationship with the individual school or department.
“Those kids were told by employees of the school, ‘Here’s your bus,’ and that in my opinion establishes responsibility,” Ragues said. “There’s a failure to supervise.”
He said he plans to name the city in a lawsuit after the Queens County Surrogate’s Court appoints an administrator to handle the case. Strained relationships among Camron’s relatives have slowed the process.
“We’re naming the city because they have neglected children in their custody by allowing little kids to go on a bus that was clearly unqualified to handle them,” Ragues said. “And whatever technical defense they may have, it’s a common law claim. They’re in loco parentis, being in the position of parents, and they have a responsibility.”
Ragues called the city’s current bus policy “ridiculous” because it splits up siblings if one is too old to qualify for busing,
“It’s a citywide issue that two children from the same family can’t go on the same bus,” he said. “And that right there is a policy of negligence.”
Safe streets and proper protocols
School bus drivers who contract with local school districts and education departments, including the NYCDOE, must undergo screening through the State Department of Education. They must also 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.
Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska questioned whether those standards apply to drivers for companies that don’t actually contract with cities or the state, like Elmer and Jennifer Transportation.
“The interesting question is, are they regulated differently than the ones that work with the city?” Gaska told the Eagle in May. “I don’t know the answer. But are there different standards, and are the parents aware of that?”
Gaska called on city agencies to examine the network of private vehicles, which are important for families but demand more transparent oversight.
“When you lose a child, it’s something you generally don’t recover from. It’s so unfortunate,” Gaska said in May. “The larger question is: How is this regulated, and does there need to be more regulation?”
A New York City DOT spokesperson said the agency has no authority over the vans. The Administration for Children’s Services said it does not oversee the van operators or certify the drivers of the privately owned vehicles, either.
Simon also called for an investigation into the licensing and protocols of the independent bus companies. He said they may obtain appropriate credentials from the state or city but “don’t follow the rules” once they get on the street and begin carrying kids.
Gipson Street, where Camron was killed, is a busy roadway, he added.
“I don’t know how they take kids off the bus there without walking them to the next bus,” he said. “Had they had done that, the kid would still be alive. It’s ridiculous they don’t have matron on the bus.”
Awaiting information from local leaders
No lawmaker from the area has set aside time to discuss the issue of private vans with the Eagle, despite several requests.
Councilmember Donovan Richards, Assemblymember Stacey Pheffer Amato, State Sen. James Sanders and State Sen. Joseph Addabbo represent communities on the Rockaway peninsula and each have submitted press statements through their offices.
“When you send your child to school, there is an expectation that they will return home safely. As a mother parent, your worst fear is something happening to your child. My heart absolutely breaks for Camron’s and his family,” Pheffer Amato said in a statement. “Buses that transport children to school, both public and private alike, must be equipped with the technology and security to protect our children, no matter the cost.”
Sanders’ spokesperson said Sanders declined to discuss Camron’s death or the oversight of the network of buses until after the DOT investigation concludes. The spokesperson sent the Eagle an article that Sanders wrote about Camron’s death in The Wave in May.
“As a father and a grandfather, myself, I can’t even imagine the immense pain this child’s family is experiencing right now,” Sanders wrote. “If something positive can be gained from this loss, it’s that we can try to ensure that it never happens again to another child.”
“We should be taking a look at school transportation safety, whether it be school buses or privately hired vans, as well as the staff who is charged with making sure students exit the vehicles and cross the street safely,” he continued. “In Camron Brown’s case, it has been reported that the driver of the van accidentally stepped on the gas instead of the break [sic] and that’s how the collision occurred.”
Sanders cited bill that he and Addabbo co-sponsored bills to study school transportation and promote drivers’ education around bus safety in the last legislative session.
Addabbo, Jr. also highlighted the bills in a May 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 address oversight of the private vehicle network vital to the Far Rockaway community.