Parents in McKinney want answers from school district officials about a “runaway” bus driver incident that occurred in February and prompted a lawsuit against McKinney Independent School District, their bus service contractor, and the driver.

“The question is, can a school district outsource its responsibilities for student safety?” asked Russell Fish, co-founder of the government watchdog group The Open Records Project, who has been working with local parents to gather information.

Fish and others spoke about the runaway bus driver during public comments at Monday night’s McKinney ISD school board meeting.

They demanded transparency and accountability from the district’s administrators and elected school board trustees to assure parents that a similar incident will not again threaten the safety of their children.

“Are you going to sit on your hands until one of our kids disappears?” said McKinney resident Mike Madden, who asked the school board to publish a report about the incident.

The runaway bus incident occurred on February 28.

A driver hired by Durham School Services picked up students at McClure Elementary School and was supposed to drop them off in the nearby Creekview Estates neighborhood. Instead, the bus full of young children was driven to the freeway and headed south on U.S. 75 for several miles, ending up in Allen.

McKinney ISD sent an email to parents the next day saying the bus driver was new to the route and “mistakenly diverted from the route, which led to delays in students arriving at their afternoon bus stops.”

Durham blamed the incident on a communications malfunction.

“Student safety remains our top priority, and we apologize for any concern or inconvenience caused by this situation,” Durham said in an email, adding that the company was “taking measures to rectify issues with the communications system.”

Parents of more than a dozen students on the bus filed a civil lawsuit in March against McKinney ISD, Durham, and the bus driver, claiming false imprisonment and general negligence. The lawsuit said some of the kids feared they were being kidnapped.

The parents have since dismissed the school district as a defendant but maintained their claims against Durham and the bus driver, who has since been identified as Isabel Garcia.

McKinney ISD argued that its contract with Durham placed all liability with the bus contractor.

Fish said at Monday night’s board meeting that Superintendent Shawn Pratt, who was then head of student safety, failed to notify police when the bus disappeared and kept the driver’s identity a secret from concerned parents.

McKinney ISD trustees named Pratt as the lone finalist for superintendent on the same day as their runaway bus incident.

Fish also said Pratt should have contacted Child Protective Services when the bus full of students went missing, especially “with the Prosper bus rapist still in recent memory.”

Prosper ISD bus driver Frank Paniagua was charged in 2022 with sexually molesting two elementary school girls on his bus for months. Parents of the victims sued Prosper ISD and Superintendent Holly Ferguson, but no one in the district has been held accountable.

Prosper ISD also had a runaway bus driver incident earlier this year—on the same route Paniagua drove. In August, a driver was “lost” for hours with a busload of elementary students. Parents received no communication from district officials and eventually tracked down the bus themselves.

On Monday night, Plano grandmother Judi Neal told McKinney ISD trustees that “the fear the children faced is being downplayed by this board.”

“Our children are placed under your protection the moment they set foot on the bus, and the fact that you trust [Durham School Services] with vetting of their drivers without doing your own background checks is just unconscionable,“ said Neal.

“You need to be more transparent in vetting and even more thorough in doing your own background checks,” she added. “It’s time for you to step up and do your jobs.”

Trustee Chad Green moved to add a discussion of the bus driver incident to the next school board meeting agenda, but no other trustee provided a second, so the motion failed.

McKinney ISD’s school bus safety policy states, “Student safety is the primary concern of the Transportation Department.”

Yet as Fish noted, district officials have outsourced student safety to third parties who are not accountable to the public except through costly lawsuits.

McKinney parents’ case against Durham and the bus driver is scheduled for a jury trial on May 6, 2024.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.