Jersey City BOE candidate reignites bus controversy after student’s death

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Jersey City Board of Education candidate Sudhan Thomas, who is running on the Education Matters ticket backed by the local teachers union and the mayor, has stirred up controversy regarding student busing after the death of a local 11-year-old.

Sudhan Thomas

By John Heinis/Hudson County View

In a comment on Facebook, Thomas wrote “The school system ( Charter school in this case ) abandoning our children to fend for themselves to reach school is part of the problem again highlighted by this heart breaking tragedy. This is an important issue our campaign will work on.”

George Gonzalez, 11, who attended BelovED Charter School, was killed Friday morning after being hit by a jitney bus at the intersection of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Neptune Avenue, according to the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office.

He was attempting to board a school bus and had his vision of the road obscured by a truck that was double parked, the sheriff’s office also said.

In a phone interview, Thomas said the tragedy highlights the need for better busing programs throughout the country, including Jersey City.

“Safety and security of kids is something I’m very concerned about in this country. Let’s talk about a bigger problem where thousands of kids are left to fend for themselves since they aren’t being provided buses to the schools,” the candidate said.

“There has to be a conversation about the safety and security of our kids. What about the 1,000s of kids walking to school everyday because the district doesn’t provide busing?”

Last month, Thomas rented a school bus to drop Jersey City students off at Frank R. Conwell Middle School, Academy 1 Middle School and Snyder High School, claiming that state and federal laws were being violated by not regularly providing these students busing.

Responding to an email on the topic yesterday, Mary Ann Dickar, the chief of staff to Jersey City Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles, said that the district follows all state and federal guidelines regarding student transportation.

She declined to comment further since Thomas is running for a seat on the BOE and the administration must remain neutral during these elections.

According to state statue 6A:27, students kindergarten through eighth grade who live two miles from school, and high schoolers who live two-and-a-half miles from school, shall receive busing from the district.

However, “District boards of education shall develop a policy for the provision of transportation services to the student in the case of a family or economic hardship, and may develop guidelines and procedures for parental waivers of transportation services.”

Thomas also expressed concern about a CBS report that said Gonzalez had left the school bus to get his football jersey and was struck by the jitney on his way back to the bus, but a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said he could not verify that was the actual chain of events that occurred.

“What happened in this situation was a blatant violation of any school busing protocol. He should be equally charged with gross negligence for allowing the child to get off the bus,” he added.

While multiple attempts to reach a BelovED Charter School official or board member were unsuccessful, Carl Czaplicki, who has two daughters who attended BelovED – one of which who was friends with Gonzalez.

“That guy [driving the jitney bus] should not have been on the road anyway, given that his license had been suspended nine times,” said Czaplicki, a former chief of staff for Mayor Jerramiah Healy.

“It’s kind of sad to turn this kid’s death into a political story … to blame the school in anyway just doesn’t make sense. Kennedy Boulevard is a dangerous street, but it’s even more dangerous when someone’s on the road who shouldn’t be – let alone driving passengers.”

The driver of the jitney bus that killed Gonzalez, Raul Delattore-Galarza, 44, of Elizabeth, was charged with causing a death while driving, as well driving with a suspended license, authorities said.

It was revealed in court that the driver had nine license suspensions and did not have a valid license when the accident occurred (h/t The Jersey Journal).

On Sunday afternoon, newly formed civic group Safe Streets JC organized a walk down John F. Kennedy Boulevard in light of three people, including Gonzalez, being killed in a traffic accident on the roadway in recent weeks.

Addressing the dozens on hand in front of the West District police station, Mayor Steven Fulop said that meetings with state and federal officials about jitney bus regulations are forthcoming, while Freeholder Bill O’Dea (D-2) said sheriff’s officers have been stepping up patrols on JFK Boulevard.

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