A Rutland County man from Guatemala is suing the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, saying that when he applied for a driver’s license in 2015, he was questioned by police and immigration officials about drug dealers because of his race.
Horacio Morales Gabriel asked the Rutland County civil court, in a complaint filed in April, for unspecified punitive damages, expenses and legal fees.
The complaint, which refers to the plaintiff as Morales, said he was born in Guatemala and is of Guatemalan Mayan descent. English is not his first language.
In September 2015, Morales applied for a driver’s learner’s permit at the Rutland office of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, where he was asked for a Social Security card. Morales gave them that card, a bank statement and a pay stub, the complaint said.
Morales did not pass the written test and was given a follow-up appointment.
When Morales came back, the complaint said, he was asked to accompany a DMV employee to the back of the building.
“The DMV employee showed Mr. Morales to an office were a (Vermont) State Trooper, a detective and an officer from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were waiting,” the complaint said.
According to the complaint, the three law-enforcement officers kept Morales at the DMV office for about 2 hours.
The complaint said law-enforcement officers demanded “information about Guatemalan drug dealers” and Morales’ fingerprints.
Morales believed he couldn’t leave because one of the officers was positioned at the door.
The law-enforcement officers confiscated Morales’ Social Security card after telling him that they had checked the number and found it belonged to a resident of Ohio.
“When the ICE officer and state trooper finally decided that Mr. Morales did not have information they demanded, they told him not to return to the DMV without a Social Security card or a Green Card,” the complaint said.
The complaint accuses the staff at the DMV of violating the state’s public accommodations act which says the staff at a facility that serves the general public shall not discriminate against someone for reasons that include race, color and national origin.
The complaint alleges the DMV discriminated against Morales on the basis of race or national origin when DMV staff “facilitated ICE’s and the state troopers’ detention and questioning of Mr. Morales.”
The complaint says Morales was eligible for a driver’s privilege card, issued by the DMV, which are available to Vermont residents who can prove residency but don’t require proof the applicant is in the United States legally.
An applicant for a driver’s privilege card does not need a Green Card or a Social Security Card to prove residency.
The complaint also accuses the DMV of discrimination for bringing Morales to law-enforcement officers instead of allowing him to take the written examination, which could have allowed him to obtain a driver’s privilege card, because taking the test was the reason for Morales’ second trip to the DMV. The DMV did not have a legal reason for preventing Morales from getting a driver’s privilege card, the complaint said.
A response from the office of the attorney general, dated Oct. 5, denies that Morales was detained or questioned about drug dealers but admits he was taken to a room with an ICE officer and a “DMV detective.”
Morales’ complaint was filed by attorney Kate Thomas of the Rutland law firm, Facey, Goss & McPhee. Calls to Thomas for comment were not returned.
Staff at the Vermont attorney general’s office said the attorneys who handled the case were not available this week.
A document filed Oct. 30 said the case would be ready for trial Oct. 31, 2019.
Some lawmakers and environmental activists say a state plan that gives schools up to 3½ years to test their water for lead will put children at risk.
Earlier this year the state finished a pilot study to see if there was lead in the drinking water at Vermont schools.
The state went to 16 schools and discovered traces of lead in every school that was tested. At five of the schools, there was enough lead in the water to require immediate action.
After the pilot study’s release in September, the state recommended schools to move ahead with their own testing programs, but so far only two school districts have worked with the Department of Health to carry out the tests.
The state quietly released its proposal for testing all schools in Vermont on the Friday before Christmas.
The plan, which was put together by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health and the Agency of Education, lays out a schedule to begin the testing in any school that has a kindergarten program.
The state hopes to have those tests wrapped up before June 2021. The rest of the schools have until June 2022 to complete their testing for lead in the water.
Jen Duggan, director of Conservation Law Foundation Vermont, said the state did not provide any science in its report to back up its decision to give schools so long to complete the testing.
“Vermont is way behind already in terms of requiring mandatory testing in schools for lead,” Duggan said. “And it’s just not acceptable to ... allow three more years to get this testing done.”
When the state announced results from the pilot study back in the fall, the Montpelier-Roxbury School District decided to pay for its own testing.
“I have a strong belief system that we can’t fix things unless we know about them,” said superintendent Libby Bonesteel. “And we want to make the best, safest environment for our kids here. So if we have lead in our water, we need to know about that.”
At Union Elementary School, a member of the Montpelier-Roxbury district, there were traces of lead found when the school tested water, although it was below the EPA “action level.”
Since the pilot report came out in September, clean water and public health advocates have waited for the Scott administration to come up with a plan for the rest of Vermont’s schools.
Neighboring states New Hampshire and Massachusetts require all public schools to test water for lead. But Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Emily Boedecker said Vermont is not yet ready to force schools to test their water.
“So right now we are saying you should. That’s an important thing. We believe that all schools should be tested,” Boedecker said. “And there is absolutely an opportunity for schools to come in as early as they can work it into their work plan, and the dates that we have are the outlier dates by which we will have been chasing and working with all schools.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe said he’ll start early in the upcoming legislative session to get a more aggressive testing schedule in place.
“I don’t want parents to think their kids are going to spend the next possibly three years at an elementary school drinking lead-contaminated water,” Ashe said.
Ashe said the Scott administration plan to give schools 3½ years to test would likely lead to a public health divide, with richer districts having the resources to test their water, while the poorer districts push the testing off as long as possible.
“We have a view in the state of Vermont that every kid deserves an equal education,” Ashe said. “We know that lead, especially in the case of children, can actually prevent the development of the young brain and their bodies — and so just like we have a commitment to equal education, we have to create an equal environment for these kids to learn in.”
Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion said he’ll introduce a bill that lowers the safety threshold from 15 parts per billion — which is the EPA “action level” which the state uses — to one part per billion.
“I don’t know how they got to 15 parts per billion,” Campion said. “But again, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others are saying, you know, there’s no good level of lead that kids should be drinking. And if it’s going to take legislative action to move that number to get it to one part per billion, I think that’s what makes sense.”
Under the state’s proposed plan the water testing must happen during the school year. The schools will be asked to collect the water samples and then inform parents when the results are available.
Also the state says school districts will be responsible to remediate or remove any fixtures that are leaching lead into the water.
Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said for some districts the process will be a heavy lift, and he defended the state’s 3½-year timeline.
“We can’t impose something on schools that they’re not prepared to comply with,” Levine said. “This is a complex program. And there are many taps in each school. Each tap has to be tested multiple times, then, depending on the findings, there has to be re-testing. So I just want it to be done right, and I want all Vermont kids to benefit from it and be protected.”
The Department of Environmental Conservation is putting together a database to handle all of the information that will be gathered and make it easy for people to track how their schools are doing.
The state says it’s applying for federal funding to help pay for the testing program.
If the school is warm and ready, so too is the wave of yellow school buses carrying Rutland County’s children safely to and from school.
“We, as bus drivers — we’re the beginning of their day and the end of their day,” said Mike Lee, driver for Otter Valley Unified Union School District. “They spend two hours with you, depending on how long they have to ride. They trust you. They develop a feeling of safety.”
Becoming a bus driver may not require an inherent passion for “school bus yellow,” the federally regulated color for all school buses, or a penchant for driving large vehicles, but they become the surrogate parents, friends and guardians of the thousands of children they ferry every day.
The journey started 32 years ago for Katrina Fielder, a driver for the district. Her son was going into kindergarten and she needed a job.
“You feel like they’re your kids and a part of your family,” Fielder said. “They love you. They really do.”
For some, the job is inherited.
“It’s in my family,” said Rutland City driver Marcia McCormack. “My father drove public transit for 30 years.”
“My father owned the buses in the town of Sherburne, which is now Killington,” said Becky Congdon, transportation director for OVUUSD. “Four out of five of us drove. It was kind of a part of growing up ... I like to say I bleed yellow.”
No matter how they got behind the wheel, drivers take their responsibility for the children, who number anywhere from 50 to 70 per bus, very seriously.
“We’re up early, into the shop. We pre-trip the bus, then off we go,” said Rutland City driver Ed Dorman. “You have to make it safe for all the kids first.”
Pre-tripping for Rutland City Public Schools means a 20-minute walkthrough to check the lights, windows, doors, tires and body of the vehicle, and make certain the bus is clean and secure.
The drivers know every name, every house, every street. They know the kids’ favorite foods and subjects in school, who can sit next to whom, and often, what’s waiting for them when they get off the bus.
“I place a face with a stop,” Dorman said. “I can see a kid, and I can tell where he or she gets off. If I know their names, it’s because they got in trouble.”
“One kid wanted to ask a girl to the prom and he needed $10, so I gave it to him,” said Rutland City driver Ray Dean.
And the drivers prepare well for their duties as guardians on the road — they are subjected to random drug testing, scans for peripheral vision, coordination and blood pressure, Dorman said.
But that’s nothing compared to the scrutiny of their passengers, said James Courcelle, now in his fifth year driving for Rutland City Public Schools.
“Oh, they let me know when I go the wrong way,” said Courcelle, “You basically have 50 back-seat drivers.”
Each school-bus driver trains their children to respond to their signals before coming toward them and boarding the bus, so they know not to run out into the middle of a road, Lee said.
“They always wait for me to give them the thumbs up,” Lee said. “We must be vigilant training these children.”
“They’re very trusting,” Congdon said. “They think, ‘the driver’s going to protect us. Nothing’s going to happen.’”
But even with the warning signals, danger looms when drivers are in a hurry and want nothing more than to pass by a bus despite the stop signal and flashing lights.
Though there are cameras that the drivers use to take photographs of operators who try to speed by, the bus drivers have to take note of every detail of the offending vehicle in order for the driver to be cited.
“Sometimes I think that people don’t stop to think, ‘this could be the school bus that my kids are on,’” said OVUUSD driver Brian Blair.
Congdon said attorneys can argue against a ticket, a conviction that yields a fine and 5 points on a license, even with eyewitness testimony provided, if the bus isn’t specifically described as black and yellow with a functioning eight-light system
“That’s a bit of a window,” Congdon said. “There’s a whole lot of information that has to get in that split second ... Ticket writing was going nowhere: If we miss a word in our write-up, then the ticket gets thrown out.”
Congdon said she’s dealt with fender benders and close calls before, including one where a girl in elementary school was almost hit in Randolph.
“There was nothing I could do,” Congdon said. “I couldn’t stop her ... I put those air horns on and the car just sped up ... her little hair just blew, she was on the white line and the car blew right through us.”
Several years ago, Congdon said she decided to appeal to the state to get additional LED lights installed on eight of their buses after one close call almost three years ago. One of their buses on Route 4 by Stockbridge Road was passed by a car and motorcycle speeding through while students were in the stairwell of the bus.
“I drive Route 7, and that’s a very dangerous highway,” Lee said. “I feel these lights have added another layer of visibility. I used to have an average of 7-10 people per week running our red lights.”
In November, Congdon said, Indiana and Mississippi lost five children in one week due to speeding drivers, including a pair of 6-year-old twins and their 9-year-old sister, who were killed by a 25-year-old in a pickup.
“It’s an epidemic,” Lee said. “It’s getting worse ... and we are carrying precious cargo. These are peoples’ children.”
“We just want something to stick,” Congdon said. “Instead of going to court and hearing the judge say ‘Is the fine going to be a hardship?’ would it be a hardship to tell a family their kid is dead?”
PITTSFORD — The local mosquito district is asking its member towns for more money in 2019.
Pittsford Town Manager John Haverstock said Thursday the BLSG Insect Control District sent the town a letter on Dec. 17 saying Pittsford’s assessment for the 2019-20 fiscal year is $34,835, plus $17,750 for Pittsford’s buy-in to the district. A copy of the letter, provided to the Herald, included no explanation for the increase.
Haverstock said this represents a 38 percent increase over the previous year. He said he believes an increase in the cost of insect spray and litigation costs stemming from a lawsuit filed during summer against the state by the Boston-based Toxics Action Center are the cause.
According to its website, the BLSG Insect Control District was formed in 1979 as a municipal district with the mission of reducing “... levels of mosquitoes for better quality of life and improved health of our citizens.”
Its website says it’s funded by the state and dues paid by member towns. The BLSG is named for the towns Brandon, Leicester, Salisbury and Goshen. Pittsford joined last year.
Proctor, while not a member of the district, does receive services, which it budgets for, according to Proctor Town Manager Stan Wilbur. He said Friday the town has been budgeting $15,000 per year for services and will likely level-fund that amount for the coming fiscal year.
According to Seth Hopkins, chairman of the Brandon Select Board, this year the BLSG Insect Control District is asking for $40,571. Last year, it requested $33,900. Hopkins said the letter didn’t come with any kind of information explaining the increase. Hopkins said the Select Board is in the process of finalizing its budget to go before voters. He expects the mosquito district will be discussed at the Jan. 8 meeting. The district has not attended these in the past, Hopkins said.
According to the minutes of the Dec. 3 Leicester Select Board meeting, the mosquito district is asking for $10,000 more this year from that town. According to the 2017 Town Report, the town budgeted $17,121 for the mosquito control district this current year.
Officials in Goshen did not return calls.
Tom Scanlon, vice chairman of the Salisbury Select Board, said Friday the district’s request has increased, but he didn’t have the exact numbers readily available.
Attempts to reach officials from the mosquito district weren’t successful Friday.
In June, the Toxics Action Center, with the help of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, appealed a “notice of intent” filed by the mosquito district with the Department of Environmental Conservation. The center claims the notice isn’t in compliance with the district’s Pesticide General Permit because it’s supposed to explore other options prior to spraying and hasn’t.
Rutland County Audubon Society conducts its annual bird count today in West Rutland. A3