DCS Uninvites Bus Safety Expert After He Compliments NBC 5 Investigation | NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth
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DCS Uninvites Bus Safety Expert After He Compliments NBC 5 Investigation

DCS-hired PR firm tries to get expert to criticize NBC 5 reporting

(Published Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016)

Dallas County Schools, the school bus agency where hundreds of drivers were caught on camera running red lights, is hosting a safety summit next month for the school bus industry.

A nationally renowned bus safety expert scheduled to speak at January's summit was suddenly uninvited just days after he complimented NBC 5's investigation into safety issues at DCS.

DCS says the decision to remove Jeff Cassell from the speakers list was a budget issued and nothing else.

But a series of emails shows Cassell was uninvited just three days after a public relations firm hired by DCS sent him a note trying to see if he would criticize NBC 5's reporting about safety concerns at DCS.

Cassell often speaks to school bus industry leaders across the country. For two decades he was head of safety at one of the nation's largest bus companies.

Today he runs the School Bus Safety Company, which produces and sells training courses, teaching bus drivers an managers how to reduce unsafe driving.

"I don't want to achieve perfection. I just want to get as close to it as practically possible, by changing the behavior of school bus drivers to remove or reduce risk," said Cassell.

NBC 5 Investigates interviewed Cassell in November after uncovering videos showing hundreds of Dallas County Schools bus drivers running red lights.

Instead of disciplining those drivers, DCS managers spent $80,000 of taxpayer money to pay the tickets for them.

In the interview, NBC 5 asked Cassell to explain how bus companies can teach drivers to prevent red light running and accidents.

"If these people are trained, measured, motivated and punished, if they have to – as a last resort – you can shape their behavior," said Cassell.

After portions of that interview aired, Cassell says he received an invitation from the agency to speak at its safety summit scheduled for next month.

But on Dec. 12, Cassell also received an email from The LeMaster Group, a Dallas public relations firm hired by DCS.

In the email, The LeMaster Group representative writes, "I hear you are going to be at Dallas County Schools' Safety Summit in January. That's great news!"

But then the email asks Cassell if he had any concerns with NBC 5's reporting about DCS.

"Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. We wanted to see what you thought of how he (NBC 5 investigative reporter Scott Friedman) used your responses and if it was a fair characterization."

Cassell responded to the email, writing, "I watched the story and thought very good. You presented my comments very well."

He writes, "What I am going to present at the summit is what should take place to instill a permanent cure" for safety issues at DCS.

Just three days later, Cassell received another email from an assistant superintendent at DCS saying he was no longer needed at the summit.

Over the phone Cassell told NBC 5 he thought he was responding to an email from someone who worked for NBC 5. The PR rep's e-mail did not clearly indicate she was searching for information on behalf of Dallas County Schools.

Cassell told NBC 5 he had no hard feelings about the DCS invitation being withdrawn but thought it was a shame because he had a powerful presentation to show them.

The LeMaster Group tells NBC 5 the decision to withdraw the invitation was "completely unrelated" to the emails asking Cassell's opinion about NBC 5's reporting.

Instead, they say the decision, "was a budget issue."

Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show DCS has paid The LeMaster Group more than $93,000 in taxpayer money since April 2015.

Currently, they receive $5,000 a month from DCS for up to 30 hours of public relations work.

That work apparently includes using taxpayer money to try to get an expert interviewed by NBC 5 to refute the station's reporting.

Tuesday afternoon, Cassell said DCS called him back to re-invite him to speak at next year's safety summit and he's accepted.

NBC 5 Investigates' reporting on safety issues at DCS has already prompted DCS to fire 13 bus drivers and suspend 229 more who ran red lights. Two senior managers implicated in the ticket scandal are no longer with the agency. DCS is also now conducting check rides on some drivers who received 10 or more complaints from citizens, many for reckless driving and speeding.

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