Fired school bus driver speaks out

A row of Westfield school buses line the parking lot of the Lecrenski office. (File photo by chief photographer Frederick Gore)

WESTFIELD – A group of Westfield school bus drivers are complaining that the school department is firing drivers without what they call “due process.”
Not so, said Mayor Daniel M. Knapik, who said there is, in fact, a process. However, he added that there are some infractions so egregious that the only recourse is termination.
Knapik offered The Westfield News a report of all bus driver personnel – with their names removed for privacy – fired by the school department in the past six years.
“When I asked to have this report run, I thought there would be 20 drivers,” Knapik said, basing that assumption on the recent complaints from drivers. “There are actually six.”
Two of those terminations occurred this year.
In October, a driver was fired after she made an illegal u-turn on the Mass Pike with a busload of third grade students from Southampton Road School.
According to a report made by a teacher, the class was headed on a field trip to Storrowton Village Museum in West Springfield Oct. 16. The teacher stated that the trip was an annual event and every year, the bus takes the route of driving down Southampton Road to Union Street to Route 20 into West Springfield. This year, the driver instead entered the Mass Pike.
“I reminded her we were going to Storrowton in West Springfield,” the report states. “She said her directions were to take the Mass Pike. The bus proceeded through the tollbooth and the driver moved into the lane headed west towards Albany. The two chaperones and I quickly told her she needed to go east. By the time she realized her mistake, it was too late.”
The teacher then wrote that the driver headed west and the teacher called the school to let them know they would be late.
“While I was on the phone with Mrs. Blais, the driver made an illegal u-turn on the Mass Pike,” the report states. “A large FedEx truck passed us at a high rate of speed honking at the bus as he passed. We were then headed east.”
The driver proceeded to take the Mass Pike to West Springfield to Storrowton, according to the teacher’s report.
Rumors about the incident have circulated since that day, and the driver of the bus, Susan Lecrenski, spoke exclusively with The Westfield News to clarify the events that took place that day.
Lecrenski said the report submitted by the teacher is blatantly inaccurate.
Lecrenski said from the beginning, the field trip was behind schedule because a wheelchair bus was needed but may not have been ordered, Lecrenski said.
“We were supposed to leave at 9:05 a.m. and at 9:10 the teacher asked me about a wheelchair bus,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it so I called in (to the Lecrenski Brothers bus station) and they said they would send one.”
Lecrenski said they finally left the school around 9:35 a.m. and she proceeded to turn on the MassPike, per her directions from the bus company. At that time, she said, the 12 or so students on board were all seated to the rear of the bus and were “acting up” and at least two boys were opening the windows and reaching out of the bus.
“I told the two boys to sit down,” said Lecrenski, noting that the teacher and two parent chaperones were seated at the front of the bus and were not disciplining the children.
“I was getting ready to turn onto the turnpike and the teacher said ‘why are you going this way,’ so I’m trying to discipline the kids and talk to the teacher because she was very agitated.”
Lecrenski said it was a difficult situation to try to explain to the teacher that she received directions via the Mass Pike and try to get the children to sit down and leave the windows alone. Lecrenski said after going through the tollbooth, she realized too late that she was in the left lane and could not move to the right lane because cars were coming.
“Because of all that commotion, she did a westbound approach,” noted Lecrenski’s husband Don, brother of Lecrenski Brothers President Dana Lecrenski, but not an owner of the company.
“I told the teacher I needed to go to Lee,” said Lecrenski. “Then the teacher stood up and said ‘you have to turn around’ and I said that I couldn’t turn around. She said I had to turn around.”
Lecrenski said the teacher was standing over her and waving her fingers in her face yelling not to go to Lee but to turn around.
“I felt threatened,” she said. “I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but she was yelling at me to turn around.”
Lecrenski said she felt bullied by the teacher, whose name she does not know. She has since filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the names of the adults on the field trip, as well as other documents related to the field trip.
Lecrenski was frazzled but after making the turn, continued to the destination via the directions she was given, which she said she is required to follow.
“If it was up to me I would not have gone to Storrowton that way,” she said.
While waiting for the students at Storrowton, unbeknownst to Lecrenski, she was being terminated from driving in Westfield. When she returned the students, she was told via a phone call not to go to the high school for her scheduled afternoon run. Lecrenski said she later obtained a copy of a fax sent at 12:07 p.m. the day of the field trip from School Superintendent Suzanne Scallion to Dana Lecrenski informing the company that Lecrenski could no longer drive a school bus in Westfield for the remainder of the current contract.
Lecrenski said she was crushed.
“Those kids are like my family,” she said. “I have been a driver more than 30 years and I have never had an accident.”
“She has a spotless record,” said Don.
After seeing the report of the teacher, Lecrenski decided to come forward because, she said, that is not how it happened.
“I’ll take a lie detector test,” she said. Lecrenski was sent a one sentence letter from the school department the next day saying she was released from driving in Westfield. Lecrenski said she could not believe there was no further explanation given and requested more information.
“About a week and a half later I got a letter,” she said.
The letter, from the superintendent to Lecrenski Brothers, states that Lecrenski showed a “lack of judgment” and stated that the u-turn was the more serious of two infractions, but did not name a second infraction.
Lecrenski said she began fighting back and requested meetings with the school department, but was denied. The incident sparked other drivers to speak out more against the practices they said are unfair and have been going on for several years.
One former driver, John Carbin, said he was the union steward for a number of years and the number of terminations provided by the school department is “whitewashed.”
“There were way more than that,” Carbin said.
Carbin was asked whether the schools or Lecrenski Brothers released those other drivers, and he said the school made the terminations. Carbin also said that people are released “out of the blue.”
“There is no due process,” he said, acknowledging that the contract language does allow for terminations of drivers by the school department as it sees fit. Even still, he said, that doesn’t make it right.
Carbin said the commonwealth’s constitution states that “no subject shall be held to answer for any crimes or offence until the same is fully and plainly, substantially and formally, described to him or be compelled to accuse, or furnish evidence against himself.”
He said the bus drivers are not afforded that right.
Lecrenski said after the field trip and her subsequent release, she asked that the videotape be pulled from her bus as evidence.
“That’s when they found out it wasn’t working,” she said.
Lecrenski said she felt targeted because after the start of the school year she complained about a parent on her route that stepped onto her bus and swore at her in front of students. Lecrenski said the woman caused several disruptions because she wanted her child to be allowed to exit the bus and cross the street alone. Lecrenski said drivers are trained that young children are taken from the bus by a parent or designated person. Children are also supposed to look at the driver for “a thumbs-up” to proceed, which Lecrenski said was something not being followed in Westfield. Lecrenski said her concerns went nowhere.
“I was actually told that if she came on the bus again I should slam the door in her face,” she said. “I’m not doing that. That doesn’t solve the problem.”
Lecrenski said if her concerns were taken seriously then the videotape could have been pulled and they would have known her camera did not work.
“I had never had a problem before,” she said.
Lecrenski said she came forward publicly because she wants to clear herself, her name, and get back to driving in Westfield. She also wants people to know that there were extenuating circumstances that took place on her bus that day.
“I want to take a lie detector test and I want the teacher and chaperones to take one, too,” she said.
Lecrenski is still driving a bus in another community, but said she never had any problems in Westfield until this year and she misses her route and the students.
“I love my kids – I have watched them grow up and I have a good rapport with my kids and a good rapport with their parents.”
The other release from driving reports provided include a variety of situations, including one criminal act.
In September of this year a driver was terminated from driving for the Westfield Public Schools, by the school department, for bullying a student on her route.
School Director of Transportation Pamela Kotarski sent a letter Sept. 27 to Lecrenski Brothers President Dana Lecrenski notifying the company of the immediate termination of the driver after she received a complaint from the child’s parents and viewed the bus surveillance video. Kotarski wrote the driver was fired “for bullying a student as well as allowing students on the bus to be involved.”
According to the parent complaint, the driver singled out their son, who attends North Middle School. The child brought to the parents’ attention shortly after the start of school that the driver did not like him.
“He has told us that she is constantly yelling at the kids to ‘shut up,’ especially himself,” states the complaint. “More recently we have been told about the driver’s specific behavior towards [him] from and with the confirmation by other children on the bus by way of their parents. Aside from yelling at our son on several occasions, we are told the driver has been making statements to him such as ‘I bet all your teachers hate you’.”
The parents requested that the school department interview their son and his friends.
“It is important hat we have all the facts in agreement before speaking with the bus company, in all fairness to the driver,” the letter states.
In June of 2005 a driver was terminated after video revealed she and her boyfriend stole money from the personal belongings of students left on the bus while the students were participating in a sporting event.
In January of 2006, a driver was fired after inviting students from her high school route to her home and told them she would provide them with alcohol. According to that report, the driver also told a student that if he told she “would send someone to beat him up.”
A termination of a driver in June of 2006 was made after the driver gave the Internet profile of her 25 year-old son to a 15 year-old student.
In March of 2007, a driver was released from driving in Westfield after he dropped a kindergarten student off beyond the child’s bus stop and failed to radio the information to the manager.
“There was an older student that got off as well and offered to walk the student home,” states the report. “A neighbor witnessed these two students walking on Shaker Road and stopped to offer them a ride. The kindergarten student did not know this person.”
Knapik said in every termination of a driver, there was just cause for firing that person and that minor complaints are often dealt with through Lecrencki Brothers, which actually employs the drivers.
Through its contract with Lecrenski Brothers, the school department does have the right to terminate drivers “if it is in the best interest of the City of Westfield to do so.”

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