Elizabeth Burris has been charged in a rollover crash involving a school bus she was driving.(Photo: KUSA)
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driver facing charges after a crash that injured eight students has been written up 20 times since August 2013 – including an incident earlier this fall in which she was accused of speeding and tailgating and numerous instances in which the thoroughness of her pre-trip safety checks were questioned.
In one of those cases, mechanics in the St. Vrain Valley School District's maintenance shop found loose lug nuts on all four wheels of her bus, according to documents obtained by 9Wants To Know.
In all, the documents show 11 instances since August 2014 in which district officials questioned whether Elizabeth Burris fully complied with a state law requiring detailed checks before each trip to make sure things like lights, emergency doors, and wheels and tires are installed correctly and working properly.
Randy McKie, the district's transportation director, defended Burris' work record, saying that the write-ups for safety checks that were less than 14 minutes – the benchmark used in St. Vrain Valley schools for an adequate examination – were "not necessarily a negative situation."
"Our No. 1 priority is safety for our kids and we take that responsibility very seriously," said Damon Brown, a spokesman for the school district.
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Burris, 39, failed a roadside sobriety test following the Dec. 7 crash in which she was "reported to be driving erratically" before her bus went out of control and flipped onto its side, seriously injuring two of the eight students on board, according to court documents.
A state trooper wrote in an arrest affidavit that "Burris showed indicia of drug impairment and stated that she was on about six different prescription medications."
Burris faces two counts of vehicular assault, eight counts of child abuse, five counts of careless driving resulting in injury and a charge of driving while under the influence.
She was in Boulder County Court on Monday afternoon, where her case was continued until Feb. 5. Burris declined to talk to 9NEWS after the hearing.
Following the Dec. 7 crash, 9NEWS sought disciplinary records for Burris from the district under Colorado's open records laws. District officials initially denied the request, arguing that the records were in Burris' personnel file and therefore not subject to release.
But the district relented after 9NEWS filed an appeal, citing court rulings that have concluded that such records can't be kept secret.
And the documents show repeated notations in Burris' record about her on-the-job performance.
On Oct. 7 – exactly two months before the crash – she was the subject of two complaints that she was speeding and another that she was tailgating other motorists. District officials pulled data from a GPS device on her bus and found that at one point that day she was driving between 64 and 65 mph in a 60 mph zone.
The entry that day on Burris' "Driver Details Report" reads, in part, as follows: "I talked to her she said that the lady in front of her was slamming on her brakes and being unsafe. We told her to slow down."
That entry listed the infraction as "unsafe act."
Burris' was written up seven times for wearing clothing that wasn't appropriate for work – shorts that were too short, pajama bottoms, sleeveless shirts, "stretchy" pants, a T-shirt. In one case, one of her supervisors loaned her a shirt to wear for the day.
She was also written up once for leaving a "dirty, trash filled bus" that was low on fuel.
But the most frequently cited issue, according to the documents, was compliance with a state law that requires each school bus driver to perform an extensive safety check before hitting the road each day. That law requires that drivers check everything from lights, windshield wipers and horns to brakes, emergency doors and hydraulic systems.
"It's a safety measure, and it's pretty standard for all larger transportation organizations to do a safety check, basically to make sure that everything is good and safe before you go and have students ride on your bus," said Jennifer Okes, director of public school finance for the Colorado Department of Education.
The department oversees the work of school districts – but it is up to administrators in each district to make sure that bus drivers are complying with the law.
Burris was first written up for a "pre-trip less than 14 minutes" in August 2014. Over the ensuing 14 months, similar entries appear in her records 10 more times.
McKie, the district's transportation director, quarreled with the implication of the records – that Burris wasn't diligent in checking out her bus before heading out on her route for the day. He said the 14-minute time came after watching drivers perform the checks and concluding that was about the time it should take.
"Our interest is not to have it be 14 minutes but to have it be a proper pre-trip check," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that an individual who hit the mark at less than 14 minutes did an improper pre-trip."
But in Burris' case, district administrators listed 10 of the 11 incidents under the heading of "improper pre-trip" and in all but one of the cases noted that she finished her safety check in less than 14 minutes. In some cases, the records show that a supervisor had a conversation with Burris; in others, they show that she was given documents detailing the issue.
On one of those days – Sept. 30, 2014 – Burris was noted to have finished her safety check in less than 14 minutes – and then at some point during the day mechanics discovered a big problem on her bus: Loose lug nuts on all of the bus's wheels.
That led to a letter admonishing Burris to be more thorough in her pre-trip checks.
"What was discovered by the fleet technician and confirmed by myself," a supervisor wrote, "is a number of loose lug nuts on all the wheels."
The letter reminded Burris of her responsibilities under state law and noted that "this is a safety concern for us as it puts the students, you and others traveling on the road at risk."
The letter told Burris she had the option for additional training, directed her "to touch and verify every lug nut to insure that each is securely fastened to the wheel of the vehicle you are operating," and suggested that she seek help from an administrator if she had any doubts about whether her bus was meeting safety requirements.
The letter noted that if the same problem occurred again she could be suspended or possibly terminated.
McKie, the transportation director, said that as of the day of the crash – Burris' last day on the road to this point – she had completed 182 total pre-trip safety checks. That means she was written up about 6 percent of the time.
Burris has been on leave with pay since the crash. That will continue until the Colorado State Patrol and the district complete their investigations of the incident, said Brown, the St. Vrain Schools spokesman.
(© 2015 KUSA)