Carroll County school officials cleared a bus driver yesterday of accusations by children that he drove their school bus across railroad tracks through flashing red warning lights Friday afternoon.
But parents in New Windsor remained upset, because school officials, who acknowledge a train was in the area, didn't believe their children.
There will be no further action involving the driver, 74-year-old Roland C. Strawsburg, who has an exemplary record in 30-plus years of driving, said James Doolan, the county schools supervisor of transportation.
"There is no argument that a train was in the area at the time," Doolan said. "The driver said as he was clearing the intersection, the train had just appeared."
Two days after meeting with distressed parents at Elmer A. Wolfe Elementary School in Union Bridge, Doolan called a news conference to announce the results of his investigation.
Nine children from the front, middle and back of the bus were interviewed. Some saw nothing and some said the driver stopped, he said. Doolan also talked to the supervisor of the train crew, who told Doolan that the crew said it did not see a school bus on the round trip between Union Bridge and Reisterstown.
He said it was possible the children saw flashing lights from the rear of the bus after it had cleared the intersection, as the driver said.
"Nothing happened. ... The train crew blew the whistle. They did not see any school bus," said Paul D. Denton, president and chief executive officer of Maryland Midland Railway Co. of Union Bridge.
But several parents from the Atlee Ridge development said yesterday that they were disappointed with the outcome and believed the children who said the bus crossed the tracks as the lights were flashing. They were organizing carpools for the four miles to and from the school.
"I'm not allowing my children on that bus," said Sharon Nobles, the New Windsor town clerk, who plans to drive her twin 5-year-old boys to kindergarten. "I'm disappointed, I'm angry, I'm perplexed.
"It's unconscionable that he would not believe 20 kids," she said of Doolan's conclusion. "I just don't feel that 20 children lied."
The crossing is where Church Street enters Old New Windsor Road, one-tenth of a mile from Atlee Ridge Road, the entrance to the development of new homes.
Sandra M. Mills said her 5-year-old kindergartner loves trains, and when she asked whether he heard the whistle Friday, "He said, 'Our bus driver pulled the stick back and pushed down on the pedal.' I just elected to drive my son. I'm just finished with it.
"I understand that he has a good driving record and everything, but for them to just dismiss it like that - it's ridiculous."
Mills said school officials could have had spot checks or had someone ride with the driver a few times.
On Tuesday, Doolan met with 17 parents for two hours, after they arrived at the school to ask for a meeting with the principal, who called Doolan.
Doolan would not say yesterday which children he interviewed, but said he was satisfied that the driver followed every precaution.
Strawsburg again declined to comment.
"I have concluded that the driver followed all of the proper procedures and that there was not an incident of concern at this point," Doolan said.
That means the driver pulled up and stopped, turned down the radio and fans, opened the door - as required of Carroll school bus drivers - and proceeded across the tracks in the lowest gear, not shifting gears until he had cleared the intersection.
The train crew told their supervisor they saw nothing, not even a car on their run. "Both the conductor and the engineer are required by federal law to report any close calls," Doolan said.
Asked about the carpools, Doolan said the children "are 10 times safer on that bus than they are in a private car. They ought to be on that school bus for the protection of them."
Charles I. Ecker, the recently named interim superintendent of Carroll County schools, said, "At this point, I'm satisfied the driver acted properly."
"I don't think the children made it up. I think the light may have turned red after they went through, but no, I don't think they made it up," Ecker said, noting that the children had a long weekend to talk about what happened.
Reports such as these are infrequent but are more likely in counties with numerous railroad crossings, he said. While Carroll has dozens, there were few - if any - train crossings to worry about in Howard County, where Ecker was the county executive from 1990 to 1998, after 15 years in the Howard County school system as an assistant and as deputy superintendent.
But Ecker knows something about the subject: He served for three years as Carroll's first supervisor of school transportation beginning in 1960. The General Assembly passed legislation requiring jurisdictions to have a transportation officer in the wake of a collision between a train and a school bus that killed seven children and injured 11 in Garrett County in 1959.
"We stress railroad safety. The drivers are well aware of the dangers," said Ecker.
Trains cross the intersection in New Windsor twice a day at 25 mph, tripping an electric circuit that activates the flashing lights as they approach the road, Denton said. In addition to the red crossing lights, the train sounds its horn twice, flashes its lights and sounds a bell.
"The only thing I can tell you is our train crew saw no school bus on the crossing as they approached," Denton said.