Dist. 34 bus driver's fate remains uncertain

 
By Christopher Hacker
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 3/2/2018 7:48 AM
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  • Students Cooper Mezo, 5, left, Parker Mezo, 8, and Chanse Briggs, 8, participate in a rally Thursday evening in support of District 34 bus driver Kevin Garfinkle outside the Antioch Upper Grade School.

      Students Cooper Mezo, 5, left, Parker Mezo, 8, and Chanse Briggs, 8, participate in a rally Thursday evening in support of District 34 bus driver Kevin Garfinkle outside the Antioch Upper Grade School. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • District 34 bus driver Kevin Garfinkle hugs co-worker Doreen Freundt as Diana Matthews and Victoria Myros watch during a rally in support of him Thursday outside the Antioch Upper Grade School.

      District 34 bus driver Kevin Garfinkle hugs co-worker Doreen Freundt as Diana Matthews and Victoria Myros watch during a rally in support of him Thursday outside the Antioch Upper Grade School. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

The fate of a bus driver for Antioch Elementary District 34 remains in limbo Friday after district officials took no action following an incident involving a student who had a replica grenade on his bus.

Officials debated whether to fire Kevin Garfinkle at a closed-door meeting that lasted more than three hours.

On Jan. 11, Garfinkle was told by students on his bus that one of them had a "grenade" in his backpack while the bus was parked to unload children at Hillcrest Elementary School. Garfinkle confiscated the item, which was later determined to be a harmless replica, according to the district.

Garfinkle said he didn't hear anything else about the incident and wasn't sure what to tell parents who asked him what was being done, so he answered their questions as best he could and referred them to the district for more information.

But a week later, Garfinkle said, he was called into his supervisor's office and told he was being suspended without pay for insubordination because he spoke to parents without permission.

In a letter given to the district's board, Garfinkle said a human resource manager for the district told him his supervisor had seen video recordings from his bus and that "it didn't look good."

"No explanation as to 'what it was that didn't look good' was given to me," Garfinkle said. "I was not shown the videotapes."

About a month later, Garfinkle said, he was given a letter outlining the district's allegations against him. According to Garfinkle, officials said he was "not to talk about or discuss" the situation with the parents on his route, but that he was never informed of this rule.

Garfinkle also said the letter informed him that audio recordings from the bus camera caught him saying he would "jump out the window" if a live grenade had been inside his bus. But Garfinkle said that doesn't mean he can't be counted on in an emergency.

As district officials debated whether to fire Garfinkle Thursday, dozens of parents gathered outside in support of "Mr. K," as their children call their bus driver.

Katie Di Meo, a mom of two young children who rode Garfinkle's bus, said Garfinkle's focus on safety made her feel confident her children were in good hands.

"(Garfinkle) has meant a lot to me because I'm a disabled vet with severe anxiety, so getting the kids to school was hurdle." Di Meo said. "It's hard to get the kids to school period, but once I realized Mr. K took safety as top priority, it put me at ease."

When Garfinkle was suspended, however, Di Meo said his absence disrupted a comfortable routine for both her and her two children.

"When that consistency was interrupted it really changed things. ... It's unethical, it's unprofessional and it's just wrong," she said. "They're using him as scapegoat for an issue that they didn't respond to correctly."

As the crowd awaited the board's final decision, a teary-eyed Garfinkle described the outpouring of support as "incredible."

"The last six weeks have been some of the hardest six weeks that we've had to endure in our household," Garfinkle said. "And not being able to drive these little guys to and from school every day has been breaking my heart. And it's killing me that they don't see that, and they don't understand how important this is to us as drivers -- and to me."

In a letter to parents on the day of Garfinkle's suspension, Superintendent Jay Marino said his district "missed the mark."

"In the spirit of full transparency, our response protocol to this type of situation was at best 'weak' and at worst 'random,'" Marino said in the letter.

But in another letter posted to the school's website, Marino said while Garfinkle's response to the incident was appropriate, subsequent actions including "incidents that were concerning, disruptive and potential safety hazards" were the focus of the investigation that could lead to Garfinkle's firing.

Bridget Shanahan, a representative for the Illinois Education Association, said the district is blaming Garfinkle for something he didn't do.

"I think it's completely inaccurate," Shanahan said. "I've read different things they've accused him of, and it's garbage. They have no problem with the way handled the situation. They're concerned with him speaking with parents along the route who asked questions and were concerned about safety and had no info, and neither did Kevin."

Instead of being suspended and potentially fired, Shanahan said, Garfinkle should have been commended for his response to a potentially dangerous situation.

"I think it's especially disheartening because Kevin should be praised for his actions," Shanahan said. "The way he handled situation was great, he puts students' safety first and he's being punished."

Shanahan added that Garfinkle dealt with situation well despite the fact that the district doesn't have explicit procedures for how bus drivers should handle weapons on their buses.

Representatives from Antioch Elementary District 34 couldn't be reached for comment.

Garfinkle said the situation has been "very stressful" for him and his family, and that his chief concern is student safety.

"I just want to go back to work," he said.

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