‘Party bus’ charters worry Durham drivers

SUNDAY, MAY 18, 2014

A WSU sorority hired seven buses from Durham’s Spokane fleet to shuttle about 300 students to downtown Coeur d’Alene. Drivers said the students were drinking alcohol on the journey without a permit to do so. (File)
A WSU sorority hired seven buses from Durham’s Spokane fleet to shuttle about 300 students to downtown Coeur d’Alene. Drivers said the students were drinking alcohol on the journey without a permit to do so. (File)

Those caravans of school buses headed down the highway may not be carrying elementary students on a field trip or a high school track team to a district meet.

Sometimes those yellow buses – the same ones that deliver kids to and from school in Spokane – are full of college students sucking down beer and liquor on their way to party on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

And some of the drivers say the mess they leave behind would make parents shudder at the thought of their kids riding those buses during the school week.

“If I was an actual parent of a kid on these buses, I would be having a fit. And this is coming from a driver,” said an employee of Durham Student Services, a national company in its sixth year of a contract to operate buses for Spokane Public Schools.

Three Durham drivers contacted The Spokesman-Review to talk about problems with the college charters and what they see as a company management culture that allows inexperienced drivers to get away with serious mistakes. The drivers withheld their names, saying they fear they’ll lose their jobs for speaking out.

The rowdy behavior of tipsy college students bound for “booze cruises” on the lake was documented earlier this month when a Washington State University sorority hired seven buses from Durham’s Spokane fleet to shuttle about 300 students from the Pullman campus to downtown Coeur d’Alene. Drivers said the students were drinking alcohol on the journey without a state-issued permit allowing them to do so.

News coverage centered on those students who urinated in City Park in view of families – an incident a witness captured in a widely shared photo – prompting WSU to bring disorderly conduct and alcohol violation charges against the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which sponsored the trip.

But that wasn’t the only spontaneous, public potty break during that May 3 outing.

Earlier in the day, five of the seven school buses pulled over on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 95 near Worley and let the WSU students out alongside the busy highway to relieve themselves in view of passing traffic. The unscheduled stop, just a mile short of a rest area, violated company protocol and put the passengers at risk, according to the three drivers interviewed for this story.

“This should never have happened,” one driver said. “Those bus drivers jeopardized those people’s lives.”

Durham drivers are frustrated that the five bus drivers who pulled over that day are still driving for the company, they said.

“To be honest with you, if it would have been any other company or any other job, they would have been fired. But we’re so desperate for drivers here, they don’t fire anybody,” one of the drivers said.

Parties on wheels

Long a destination for fun-seeking young adults, Coeur d’Alene’s north shore draws busloads of college students from around the Inland Northwest, including WSU, Whitworth University and the community colleges in Spokane. Many of them charter a lake cruise through the Coeur d’Alene Resort, which offers boats with DJs, dance lights and well-stocked bars.

But the party often begins on the bus ride to the lake. If the students have a banquet permit in hand, the alcohol flows freely. Some even bring a keg of beer onto the bus. If no permit is presented, the drinking is less conspicuous. Drivers can confiscate any alcohol they see, but their attention is on the road, not so much the behavior in the seats behind them.

“They party all the way over there, get on the boat, party on the boat, and then get off the boat, and then they’re really sick by the time they get back on our buses,” a driver said. “And it gets really bad.”

By the time the drivers return to Spokane after a long day on the road, they are left to clean up after the partying students. The recent WSU trip was no exception, said one Durham driver. “It took some of those drivers an hour, an hour and a half to clean up the mess on the bus.”

Beer bottles, broken glass, spilled drinks and food waste are the least of it, drivers said in interviews. Sometimes they must mop up after students have become sick on the trips.

“I had a heck of a mess cleaning up after them from the alcohol,” a driver said about a recent college student charter to Coeur d’Alene. “And yet the next day we use that same bus for a school bus for our children.”

One driver described picking up a middle school band on a bus that had just been used by a college group. The driver left the windows open “because it reeked of alcohol.”

Jason Conley, safety officer and transportation director for Spokane Public Schools, said Durham’s charter business has no impact on the school district. But he added, “Am I thrilled that buses are being partied in? Absolutely not.”

The buses also get pretty dirty after transporting football players following a Friday night game on a grass field, Conley noted.

“These are not showroom vehicles that we want to leave in a museum somewhere to look it. They’re made to be used,” he said.

John Pike, general manager of Durham’s Spokane operation, said, “We do charters all the time. We clean buses after charters.”

Durham tight-lipped on trip

What happened on the WSU charter May 3 was the talk of the Durham break room, according to the drivers interviewed for this report. But Pike said his drivers did not report to him that students had been drinking on the trip. “No, sir. Not that I’m aware of,” he said.

“Their drivers were watching them to make sure that they didn’t bring alcohol on the bus,” Pike said. “If they were carrying alcohol on the bus, the drivers should never have allowed them on the bus.”

He declined to talk about the five drivers who pulled over to let students out along the highway.

“I can tell you what my feelings are about those things, but I’m not going to,” he said. “I need to talk to the people that were actually dealing with it to find out 100 percent what was going on.”

Pike said he would look into what happened before responding to additional questions. He then referred questions to Durham’s parent company, National Express Corporation, a subsidiary of National Express Group PLC, a company registered in England and Wales.

Molly Hart, a National Express spokeswoman, released a company statement saying the safety of passengers is the top priority and that Durham’s bus drivers “are highly trained” with behind-the-wheel experience.

“Should an incident occur while transporting passengers, the bus driver’s responsibility is to pull over and take measures to keep everyone calm and safe,” the company said. “This includes reporting the incident to dispatch, who will alert the appropriate authorities if necessary.”

The company, which has about 250 drivers in Spokane, refused to answer any more questions.

Conley, the school district official, was quick to defend Durham. The contractor, he said, has a high standard of driver training and regularly passes state safety inspections.

“It sounds like we have a couple of disgruntled drivers over there,” he said. “I think they’re making some pretty broad-brush statements.”

Pressed about what happened on the WSU trip, Conley said, “Am I comfortable with what went on there? Absolutely not. Do I think that Durham’s going to work with them in the future? Absolutely not.”

He added he doesn’t know for sure that the company will sever ties to WSU student groups who charter buses for lake cruises, but said Durham’s core business is transporting students to and from school and for field trips and extracurricular activities.

“This is not the business they’re in, of running kegger trips around or transporting students that have had too much to drink before they get on the bus to the lake and back,” Conley said. “Had they known that this trip was going to go off the way it did, there’s no way they would have taken that seven-bus trip.”

Public safety concerns

The booze cruises organized by college groups, radio stations and others occasionally end in police being summoned to the resort area for disturbances involving drunken passengers, said Sgt. Christie Wood, spokeswoman for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department.

“Usually the trouble, if there’s going to be trouble, is at the end of the cruise when they get off the boat and they’re heavily intoxicated,” Wood said. “Depending on the age group and what their mindset is at the time, they might look for fights just with anybody. We’ve had those kinds of reports.”

Marine patrol deputies typically do not encounter problems with the cruise boats, said Sgt. Ryan Higgins, who oversees the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office Recreation Safety Section.

“We haven’t been asked to board them for any reason at all,” Higgins said. “They’re required by Alcohol Beverage Control to monitor and check IDs and not over-serve. It’s basically a bar on the water, so they have to follow the same rules and regulations that they would if they were on land at an actual establishment.”

The Coeur d’Alene Resort declined to answer questions about the cruises.

As for the drinking on the buses, the WSU students on the May 3 trip did not present banquet permits required to consume alcohol on vehicles for hire in Washington. The state Liquor Control Board issues those permits for $10 per vehicle.

Once in Idaho, however, no permit is required for drinking on buses or any other type of vehicle for hire, such as a taxi or limousine. The law does prohibit alcohol from being sold on those vehicles, and no alcohol may be present in the driver’s compartment.

Whatever problems the college trips present, they do provide an alternative to drinking and driving, said Lt. Chris Schenk of the Idaho State Police.

“If this is a way to make it safer then we’re very much in favor of it, as long as they comply with all the rules and don’t stand along the side of the road and urinate in public,” Schenk said. “But if it keeps one person from drinking and driving, then we’re definitely in favor of it.”

A learning opportunity at WSU

WSU officials are aware of the reports of drinking on the buses and public urination along the highway – incidents that are part of the investigation and student conduct charges against Kappa Kappa Gamma, said Melynda Huskey, the school’s dean of students.

Even though this was not an official university function, WSU students can be held accountable for any off-campus conduct that adversely affects the university community or the pursuit of its objectives.

“Our goal is to provide an educational outcome for students to help them learn from the consequences of actions that violate the standards of conduct, and secondarily to protect the community,” Huskey said.

Durham turned over to college investigators still images taken from security cameras on the buses, and the WSU conduct board has those photos, Huskey said.

“We are making every effort to identify individual students who should be accountable for their behavior, and where we have evidence that we can use, we would use it,” she said.

The national office of Kappa Kappa Gamma declined to allow WSU chapter officers or any of its chapter members to be interviewed for this article. Elizabeth Bailey, the sorority’s national vice president, responded with a statement: “Kappa will continue to reinforce our risk management policies that promote appropriate behavior. Our policies and guidelines set high expectations for all members and we are taking action to ensure Gamma Eta chapter members learn from this unfortunate incident.”

WSU can’t stop students from booking bus charters for getaways. “These are young adults, emerging adults. They have access to funding and opportunities that are appropriate for them at their age,” Huskey said.

But the university does have advisers who can help student groups understand what they’re getting into, she said.

“We want to work with students,” Huskey said. “We want to help them think through the consequences when things go wrong, as they did here.”

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