City Reporter 

City Reporter

Reform Isn't Enough

Daycare tragedy leads to unanswered questions.

By Janel Davis

In the wake of last week's fatal van accident involving the Tippy Toes Learning Academy, questions have arisen about the efficiency of the Department of Human Services (DHS).

DHS is responsible for monitoring, licensing, and ensuring the safety of 209,000 Tennessee children in 3,800 daycare centers. In July 2000, legislation was passed to radically improve child-care centers' guidelines and standards, including criminal-background checks for all employees, and was instituted in 2001.

DHS communications director Paul Ladd reported that van driver Wesley Hudson had completed a safe-driver seminar just days before the tragedy and that the center was licensed to transport children. According to state reports, Hudson had never undergone the required background check, and a previous drug conviction should have prevented him from transporting children.

"It appears that if the laws that we passed had been followed, this might not have happened," says state Representative Carol Chumney (D-Memphis). "The question has to be asked, Why was the law not followed?"

DHS is currently investigating the tragedy, the center, and the driver, but Chumney recommends that an investigation be conducted by an outside source, like the attorney general's office. "Parents deserve to know the answer to [why the law was not followed]," says Chumney. "The law is in place; it just has to be properly enforced."

Diane Manning, director of Riverview-Kansas Day Care Center and president of the Tennessee Quality Child Care Association, says the tragedy should be a wakeup call for everyone involved, including the parents.

"The reports from the children [that the driver allegedly possessed marijuana] should have been checked out to the fullest. You can't take your children somewhere and not know what the heck is going on," says Manning. "Parents should visit the centers frequently, talk to the director and teachers as well as the bus drivers. Life carries an adult responsibility, and, until you start meeting that responsibility, you're as guilty as the next person."

Manning says that her organization and other longtime daycare owners have stressed to DHS that the new centers being licensed should be encouraged to guarantee that all of their employees have the proper training, even going so far as to volunteer free training at their established centers.

"I have mixed emotions about this right now," says Manning. "Sadness because of the tragedy and anger because, if the accident is found to be the result of negligence, this could have been avoided."

Manning and her association of daycare centers plan to conduct a fund-raiser for the victims' families and survivors of the accident. Immediately after the crash, she had all nine of her bus drivers randomly drug-tested and also plans to have each of the center's buses modified to limit their maximum speed to 50 mph. Manning recommends that other centers take the same steps and include a separate monitor on the bus to assist the driver.

"We can't bring those children back," she says, "but maybe we can save others."

Ladd says DHS will not determine the future of Tippy Toes Learning Academy until a full investigation has been completed.

Department officials and legislators stress that anyone who suspects inappropriate or illegal activity at a child-care facility should call the toll-free DHS Complaint Line, 1-800-462-8216.

In Hot Water

Lakeland sues VanderSchaaf for development fees.

By Rebekah Gleaves

The city of Lakeland wants Shelby County commissioner and developer Clair VanderSchaaf to pay up.

In a complaint filed Thursday, April 4th, attorneys for Lakeland claim that VanderSchaaf personally, and in conjunction with several development companies he operates, owes the city $185,270.68 plus interest and attorneys' fees.

"It's pretty cut-and-dried," says Bob Ledyard, the attorney who filed the complaint for Lakeland. "These are fees that Lakeland fronted for development and that VanderSchaaf is contractually bound to pay. I don't know why he hasn't paid yet."

But VanderSchaaf says he hasn't paid Lakeland because he doesn't owe them anything.

"They have no substantiating documents. They're not legitimate fees or bills," says VanderSchaaf. "We've paid all of our fees there like we do with any development."

The issue, according to Lakeland's complaint, is that VanderSchaaf incurred debt when developing four residential neighborhoods in Lakeland. Each of the neighborhoods -- Plantation Hills, Fairway Meadows, Woodland Park, and Paradise Lake -- required water, sewer, and roadway infrastructure to be installed, and Lakeland says that VanderSchaaf agreed to reimburse the city for these up-front costs. In addition, the complaint alleges that VanderSchaaf also "agrees to pay the cost of all engineering, inspection, and laboratory cost[s] incidental to the construction of subdivision streets" and "water service in or to the subdivision."

VanderSchaaf disagrees.

"They had an engineer that went wild with his billing, and they're just looking to collect money from wherever they can get it," he says.

On July 14, 1997, Maurice Azain Jr., the city manager of Lakeland, sent an itemized invoice to VanderSchaaf Development seeking reimbursement for the city's work. On August 24, 1998, James Marco Callahan, responding on VanderSchaaf's behalf, sent a letter to Azain. Callahan's letter offers to donate 11 acres to the city in exchange for dismissing the debt.

VanderSchaaf says that Lakeland did not accept the land donation and that he did not intend for the land gift to be in lieu of payment.

"I was offering park land in several locations just to be a good citizen," says VanderSchaaf. "But since they were claiming that I owed them for these fees, I just said, 'Well, while you're at it ... .'"

He says that he was served with the complaint last week and has not yet spoken with his attorney. By law, VanderSchaaf has 30 days in which to file a response.

Arguing About Silence

Protest causes problems for Bolton High student.

By Mary Cashiola

For some, silence is golden. But for one student activist, it's worth even more than that.

Bolton High School senior Richard Puckett wanted to participate in the Day of Silence on April 10th, a nationwide silent protest in support of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transsexual (GLBT) youth. But he also wanted to get his classmates to get involved. And that's where his lesson in silence began.

The Day of Silence encourages participants to take a nine-hour pledge of silence in protest against discrimination and harassment of GLBT youth. Instead of speaking, participants hand out cards explaining what they're doing and why.

Puckett, who plans on majoring in pre-med at the University of Memphis, says he went to his principal, Dr. Snowden Carruthers, who approved the protest with a few stipulations. He wasn't supposed to put flyers advocating the event in teachers' boxes -- but they could be placed on bulletin boards -- and if a teacher required a student to speak in class, he or she would have to do so.

"When I first approached Doc about this, he seemed very hesitant," says Puckett. But Puckett got approval and made about 900 flyers to put around the school. He had only posted about 30 when he got the news that the protest and the flyers had been nixed by the district's superintendent, Dr. Bobby Webb.

"Dr. Carruthers stated that if flyers connected with a minority group were given the right to be put up on school property then flyers and/or posters of other minorities would have that same right," says Puckett. "His exact example was that skinheads and Nazis would be able to put up their posters and flyers around school and that would cause more problems than it would solve."

Webb told the Flyer Monday that he didn't know what the principal had told Puckett, but the issue was purely about student silence.

"It had nothing to do with what he had to promote," says Webb. "In a school system, we can't have any organization promoting a day of silence. The teachers and students have to interact for the day. We can't have a school day without speaking."

Puckett says the principal never said anything about disruptions to the school day.

"No one mentioned having a problem with this protest," says Puckett. "The only comments were made by students who thought homosexuality was wrong and would not support it."

Puckett came out when he was 16 and says he wants to open "new doors for students coming up behind me so they will have better opportunities than I did and hopefully an easier high school career."

The school does allow other groups and organizations, such as New Hope Christian Church, to place flyers on school bulletin boards.

"We allow groups to put up signs for meetings for the Boy Scouts or baseball leagues or things like that," says Webb. "It's just a matter of information for the students in the school, but that's as long as the activity is not during school.

"We wouldn't let anyone put up flyers saying that everyone should skip school next Tuesday to go play baseball," he continued. "We're not going to allow that."

Webb says that although Puckett is entitled to his opinion, he, too, is not allowed to participate in the Day of Silence.

"He's a student, so, no, he's not. I thought at first that he was promoting something on a Saturday, but this is on a school day," says Webb.

However, Puckett says he will still speak out by not speaking.

"This is something that I want to do, and observing my own beliefs is my right. If the schools would like to stay out of it, that's fine, but it does not affect my decision."


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