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News 8 Investigates

DALLAS -- Last month, some DISD parents were outraged over strangers driving their children to school. Now, their fears may be compounded.

News 8 has learned that many of the private vans being used to transport their children are considered dangerous and in violation of state law.

So dangerous and potentially deadly, in fact, at least 29 states (including Texas) have banned transporting students to and from school in these so-called 12- or 15-passenger vans.

About 2,200 students in all were being driven to and from school by strangers in private vans, SUV's and cabs at the beginning of the year in an effort to save DISD hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. But parent outrage led to the reduction of numbers to about 1,800 students.

The furor has since died down, but should it have?

News 8 has learned those white vans still being used by DISD's transportation provider, Dallas County Schools, appear to be the same style van with history of rollovers, injuries, and deaths nationwide. Use of the vans also appears to be in violation of state law.

Dallas attorney Todd Tracey said he knows. He has handled 20 van rollover cases in the past 25 years, including two current cases.

'Most state universities have specifically outlawed most of their school programs from using 12- and 15-passenger vans for the very reason [that] they roll over too easily and the fact that when they do roll over, there's such a high likelihood of serious injury, including death,' Tracy said.

According to Texas state law, only 'school buses shall be used for the transportation of students to and from school on routes having 10 or more students.' On routes having fewer than 10 students, 'passenger cars may be used.'

Then there's this from the Texas Association of School Boards: 'School districts are not allowed to use 12- or 15-passenger vans to transport students on routes to and from school.'

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil transportation Services says it's all about student safety: 'Passenger vans are not required to be manufactured to the same federal motor vehicle safety standards as traditional yellow school buses. These vehicles do not provide the same degree of occupant protection to passengers.'

Perhaps the most simple warning comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on its website. A picture of the same style van being used to transport DISD school children is shown, followed by the words, 'Don't Use as School Bus.'

Two weeks ago, several DISD board members quizzed DISD and Dallas County Schools officials about student safety. They were repeatedly assured the children are safe.

'We have a group of folks that are called 'safety trainers' and 'safety managers,'' said Rick Sorrells, superintendent of Dallas County Schools. 'And we are having those folks review and look at some of the vehicles to make sure those vehicles are safe.'

DISD officials said they have been assured by Dallas County Schools that the private 'passenger vans' being used are legal to operate. Dallas County Schools spokesperson Susan Falvo said they have been assured by the private van operators that they conform to all safety standards.

'We've checked them, we've verified it, we've spotted checked -- they are absolutely, they are safe,' Falvo said. 'I feel comfortable.'

But no mention is made of the volumes of information available to Dallas County Schools and DISD indicating the vans should not be used to transport students to school.

'You are transporting our most precious cargo,' Tracy said. 'Why on God's green Earth would you take a chance on losing them because a violation of the law? DISD should immediately stop using 12- or 15-passenger vans to transport anyone.'

DISD officials say Dallas County Schools assured them that the vans are legal and safe. Dallas County Schools officials say the private van operators assured them the vans are legal and safe. The private vans operators have yet to comment.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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