By David Brand
[UPDATE 5:55 P.M. — This story has been updated with a statement from the Department of Education.]
The van that crushed and killed a 7-year-old boy after he exited a school bus in Far Rockaway last month was operated by a company that advertises itself as an “approved NYC vendor” of the Department of Education, but it remains unclear what that designation means.
Camron “Neno” Brown was killed while walking alongside the school bus in order to transfer to a van that would take him to his aunt’s home after school on April 19. The 22-year-old driver of the van accelerated forward and pinned Camron against the school bus, according to the NYPD. The driver remained on the scene and was not arrested.
The company Elmer and Jennifer Transportation operated both the van that killed Camron and the bus that the boy was exiting, Camron’s aunt Maureen Brown and the family’s attorney Raymond Ragues told the Eagle. Maureen Brown and Camron’s father Joseph Brown said they paid Elmer and Jennifer Transportation a fee to shuttle Camron and his sister Paris to and from school each day. Elmer and Jennifer Transportation did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Private van and bus companies transport an untold number of children to and from their homes and schools in the Rockaways, and elsewhere in New York City. The large conversion vans are often called “church vans,” though they are not necessarily affiliated with a church.
Elmer and Jennifer Transportation advertises itself as a DOE-approved vendor as well as an “approved vendor” of the Police Athletic League and the YMCA. The company website features the logo of the DOE, PAL and the YMCA.
The day of the fatal crash, the DOE told the Daily News it did not contract with the van operator.
“This is not a DOE-contracted vendor. We’ll ask Elmer to remove the DOE logo from its website,” a spokesperson for the DOE told the Eagle.
PAL said the organization has used Elmer and Jennifer Transportation before but does not designate “approved vendors” and questioned why the company is using the PAL logo on its website.
“We have utilized them as a business, but they are not an ‘approved vendor.’ We do not do that,” said PAL Archivist and Planning Strategist Eleanor King after checking with the purchasing department and the executive director. “We have never given permission for them to use our logo.”
Elmer and Jennifer Transportation contracts with the YMCA to provide transportation services for off-site youth and family programs, the YMCA said.
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 was too old to qualify.
Maureen Brown said 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 said she visited the school once at dismissal time to give Elmer and Jennifer Transportation a check and was surprised to see Camron, Paris and other children sitting inside a van instead of a school bus.
“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.
She said she looked into the vehicle and noticed that none of the children were wearing seatbelts. She said she told all the children to buckle up in case the van stopped short during the ride.
“When I went into the van, none of the kids were strapped in. I said, ‘Kids, make sure you put on the seatbelt because if he stops, you’re going to go through the windshield,’” Maureen Brown said.
She also said that the family did not receive information about the bus route and did not know that children had to transfer from one vehicle to another during the trip home. The New York Post reported on the alleged lack of communication last month as well.
“We didn’t know that there would be a transfer from bus to van,” Maureen Brown said. “I wanted to switch companies but they told me to wait until Spring Break.”
Ragues, the attorney, said the family also did not know that children had to make multiple transfers during the trip.
“Parents didn’t even know the kids were transferring more than once,” Ragues said.
Maureen Brown said the company never contacted the family after the fatal collision.
“They didn’t even call us after the accident to apologize,” she said.
Though an untold number of families rely on private vans so that students can get to and from school, it is unclear what agency, if any, has oversight over the vehicles and their drivers.
Ragues said he blames the Department of Education for lack of oversight of the private van companies that take children to and from school and for its policy of providing bus service to some children and not others. The family is planning to sue the DOE, he said.
“There is a lack of oversight when they’re sending kids onto private vans,” Ragues said. “It’s outrageous. There’s more oversight of people getting into taxis because of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. And these are kids.”
The Administration for Children’s Services does not oversee the van operators or certify the drivers of the privately owned vehicles, according to the agency. The New York City Department of Transportation also said it did not provide oversight. Both agencies directed requests to the state DOT, which did not provide a response.
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 last week.
“School buses drop kids off all over the place,” said a staff member who answered the phone at the school.
While they look for answers, the Brown family has started a GoFundMe page in Camron’s honor.
“This could've been anyone's child and it could have also been several more children killed due to negligence. Camron deserves justice and all children deserves safer transportation,” the family wrote.