A school bus driver is transporting 45 students when he attempts to turn left into a middle school driveway. Footage from an onboard recorder shows the bus turning into the path of an oncoming car. The school bus strikes the car, killing the passenger.
This incident, which occurred in February 2010 in Pennsylvania, underscores the importance of thorough background checks on bus drivers.
An investigation into the records of Frederick Robert Poust III, the bus driver in that fatal crash, found that he obtained a CDL even though he was involved in a fatal accident in 1999 where, distracted by his cell phone, he drove through a stop sign and into an oncoming car, killing a 2-year-old girl.
In the wake of Poust's 2010 accident, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation changed its policy regarding accident information on school bus driver applicants' driving records. For more details, see the sidebar on pg. 4 of this feature.
Checking applicants' driving records is a requirement in many states as part of the hiring process, and it is a component of a background check, which is one of the first steps a school district or bus company can take to ensure the safe transport of students to and from school.
"There isn't anything more important than background checks," says Launi Schmutz, director of transportation for Washington County School District in St. George, Utah. "Along with training and safe driving, it is a large part of keeping children safe."
"The hiring decision is one of the most important decisions a transportation manager can make," adds Pete Meslin, transportation director at Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa, Calif. "Spending time hiring the right personnel is a wise investment. Great drivers can help assure student safety and quality customer service. Beyond that, they can free up dispatcher, trainer and supervisor time."
Three levels to a thorough background check
What does a thorough background check involve aside from a motor vehicle record check?
Kyle Martin, vice president of consulting company TransPar Group in Lee's Summit, Mo., says there are three levels: federal checks, state checks and the operation's hiring procedure.
"At the federal and state levels, the background checks comprise criminal record checks and motor vehicle record checks," he explains. "States establish more restrictive requirements as a part of their CDL endorsement process. The human resources department for a district can adopt even more restrictive hiring standards. It often includes a check with the state's children and family services department or agency."
Diana Hollander, program officer of pupil transportation at the Nevada Department of Education, says there is not a regulation in Nevada for fingerprinting of support staff, but many school districts pay the required fee to run both the federal check, which goes through the FBI, and the state check, which goes through the Nevada Department of Public Safety.
Hollander believes that running both checks is important because if you don't do a federal background check, "you will miss information," she says.
Allan Jones, director of student transportation at Washington's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, says it is also important for school districts and bus companies to contact applicants' previous employers and CDL officials who are involved in drug testing.
"Not making these calls can prevent the existing employer from finding out red flags about the applicant or new driver," Jones says.
Moreover, Martin says it is important for operations to keep all information related to background checks and the hiring process organized.
"The challenge faced by most districts is two-fold: organization of the information with regard to screening and evaluating, and the time from when a person applies until they are a qualified driver. We find that many districts struggle with recordkeeping that accurately reflects their compliance with regulations," Martin says. "We have often recommended the use of electronic imaging software, DocuWare, which allows for the filing of a record multiple ways using its index system. Record retention and recall improves dramatically with this approach."
Districts' hiring policies
Most school district transportation departments work closely with their human resources department during the school bus driver hiring process to ensure that the most capable and well qualified people join the team.
The screening process generally involves, as noted, federal and state background checks, a motor vehicle record check and then continued monitoring of the driving record once the applicant is hired. Employees are usually required to notify their operation's management team within 24 hours if they have been arrested or have been charged with any traffic violations.
Such is the case at Walled Lake (Mich.) Consolidated School District. Moreover, Transportation Supervisor Jill Segal says her department only hires drivers with zero points on their driving record.
"I always call the immediate past employer," she adds. "An applicant would be disqualified if they have points on their license or if their previous supervisor said they had issues of any kind, such as excessive tardiness."
At Newport-Mesa Unified School District, the bus driver applicant review process comprises the following components:
● Application/resume review
● Department of Motor Vehicles driving record review
● Bus driving knowledge test
● Review of training hours for the last five years. (All training hours must be signed for by state-certified instructors.)
● Medical exam even if the applicant has a current medical card
● A federal and state fingerprint check
● Telephone reference checks
● In addition, depending on the position, at least one interview is required.
Meslin says his department makes an effort to maintain good relations with the California Highway Patrol, which is responsible for transferring driver records when a driver switches districts.
"We've also improved our recruiting process by working through professional organizations like the California Association of School Transportation Officials and the California Association of School Business Officials," he adds.
Changes by the Utah Board of Education to the state's standards for school bus driver background and motor vehicle record checks (see the sidebar on pg. 4) have increased the frequency with which Washington County School District bus driver applicants and existing employees undergo these checks.
In addition to adhering to the state's standards, Schmutz says previous employment checks are performed, and applicants complete a supplemental questionnaire with their application where they are asked if they have been terminated from any job and if they have ever been charged with a felony.
"We also have a booking site that shows everyone in our county who has been arrested and the reason for the arrest," she says. "We have employees monitor this site, and it has been very helpful and informative."
In addition to background checks prior to employment, a school bus driver applicant at Shenandoah County Public Schools in Woodstock, Va., is asked to furnish a statement signed by two reputable people who reside in the school division or in the applicant's community that he or she is of good moral character, according to Transportation Director Martin Quigley.
"I then call these references to verify aspects of the relationship and to ensure that our drivers are indeed in good moral character," he says.
Extent of checks vary state to state for some school bus contractors
Contractors adhere to the same general guidelines as school districts when hiring bus driver applicants.
At North American Central School Bus in St. Louis, when reviewing an applicant's motor vehicle record, officials look for such unacceptable behavior as speeding or reckless endangerment, according to Director of Safety and Training Frank Ciccarella.
"In addition, we look for DWI convictions that are within the last 10 years," he says.
Contractors differ from school districts, however, in that many times, third party administrators oversee the background and motor vehicle record checks and applicant qualifications. This is the case for North American Central School Bus and for Cincinnati-based First Student Inc.
Maureen Richmond, director of media relations for First Student, says that the company follows the Fair Credit Reporting Act, so if officials find something on a prospective employee's record that they would deem inappropriate, they share that with the candidate and then the candidate has an opportunity to file an appeal if he or she feels that more explanation is needed.
Because First Student operates buses at terminals around the nation, the specifics of applicants' background checks vary based on each state's regulations.
"It will vary based on how far back you can go. In some states, you can go back to day No. 1; in other states, you can only go back five years, seven years, etc.," Richmond explains.
A background check is performed initially before the applicant transports any students, and then a check is performed again every couple of years.
"Some student transportation contracts specify and require that it's checked on an annual basis or even more frequently," Richmond says. "Your motor vehicle record is pulled at least annually, but depending on the terms of a contract, it may be pulled every six months, every 90 days, etc."
Should there be more uniformity nationwide?
Just as states have different regulations on how far back employers can go for a background check, they also have different standards and processes for background checks, and different specifications on what will disqualify a school bus driver applicant from obtaining the position.
Because of this disparity, officials run the risk of potentially hiring someone who could endanger students if that person has moved from state to state.
Many pupil transportation officials feel that having more uniformity among states for the background check process and bus driver applicant restrictions could help to prevent this.
Quigley, for instance, believes there should be uniformity in all aspects of transporting students in a school bus within the U.S., and Schmutz believes it would be helpful in eliminating instances where an applicant may question why he or she was hired at a previous operation but was not accepted for the current position.
"I like the idea of being uniform since a CDL is essentially a national license," Segal says. "However, I think the uniformity should only be in the requirement to do a background check. Felonies should certainly be considered, but I think states and school districts should have some flexibility. For instance, some districts may be OK with hiring a driver with one or two points on his or her license."
Jones says he's content with the process for school bus driver background checks in Washington state.
"The thing I'm nervous about in terms of any kind of national standards or national regulations is that they're not likely to have some kind of national standards without having some kind of report verifying that you've met those standards, and they wouldn't give us any money to put toward the effort," he explains.
Providing protection when bus drivers move between states
While Hollander feels that having more uniformity among states would make bus driver disqualifications clearer and the background check process more streamlined, she says it would be very difficult to achieve.
She believes that a national clearinghouse that lists information about school bus drivers — specifically, any authoritative action that was taken against them, such as being suspended or terminated — would help to prevent undesirable candidates from obtaining jobs at operations in various states.
"It would involve having a website where you could log in to find out if the driver was ever terminated and why," says Hollander, who oversaw criminal background checks for teacher licensing applicants in Nevada for 15 years.
Hollander feels that a national clearinghouse for school bus drivers would be especially helpful for instances when a driver is fired because of inappropriate actions with a student even though he or she may not have been arrested for it or formally charged.
"We run into school police not being what I would call as vigilant as they should be in such actions. Usually a transportation department has to really force school police to take action and call in the local authorities. I've seen that many times," she says. "So, let's say that a person was never arrested, but was terminated. In a clearinghouse, you would report 'termination for inappropriate conduct' and future employers would have that information through the clearinghouse — you're not going to find it on an FBI report."
Hollander says that establishing a national clearinghouse for school bus drivers is something that she would like to see the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services work on.
Quigley suggests that a national standard could be developed by and agreed upon through the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
"Once a school bus operator finished all training to this national standard, we could pass on this training information and employment data to other transportation directors in other school systems/states," he says. "Local directors could still have their own operational verification checks."
Pete Japikse, director of pupil transportation at the Ohio Department of Education, says another possible solution that could help provide more protection when drivers move between states would be to consolidate state conviction records with federal conviction records.
"This would allow all employers to run just one federal background check," he says, "to ensure that a driver is suitable for employment."
As can be expected, states have different standards and procedures for bus driver background checks, and different specifications on what will disqualify an applicant from obtaining the position. Here are some specifics:
Ohio. State pupil transportation director Pete Japikse says that Ohio's process for school bus driver background checks involves three activities:
"Drivers arrested for any of the identified crimes are immediately disqualified from operating a school transportation vehicle during the pendency of the charges," Japikse explains.
Although it is not considered part of the background check process, all school bus drivers' driving records are required to be checked at least twice per school year. They can have no more than six points on their records, no more than two serious violations in 24 months, no railroad track violations in the last 12 months and no DUI offenses in the last six years.
Utah. Last year, the state Board of Education approved new standards to require all new school bus drivers to undergo FBI background checks and submit fingerprints to the state's Bureau of Criminal Identification. Additional background checks are required every five years, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
The new standards also require school districts to review bus drivers' personal driving records at least twice a year (previously, they only had to check them once a year).
Launi Schmutz of Washington County School District says that with the exception of performing the additional background checks every five years, her operation adhered to these regulations before they went into effect last year. Her operation will now perform the additional background checks every five years, and she believes it will help in ensuring that the most well qualified people are employed at her operation.
Washington. In addition to obtaining a background check from the FBI and the Washington State Patrol prior to hiring a school bus driver applicant, districts are required to get a copy of employees' driving records annually.
State director Allan Jones says that Washington's database of authorized school bus drivers is linked with the state Department of Licensing's driving record database. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is notified whenever any action is taken on a school bus driver's driving record, and OSPI can then notify the school district in the event that the driver may not have been forthcoming about the incident.
Several years ago, the state changed its CDL disqualifying conditions regarding driving over the speed limit, whether it's in a school bus or the driver's personal vehicle.
"It had been 11 mph or over, and we changed it to 10 mph or over," Jones says. "We didn't feel it was appropriate for people to have a lot of speeding tickets on their abstract but it wasn't disqualifying them because none of them were at 11 mph or over - they were all at 10 mph over the speed limit."
Pennsylvania DOT expands access to driving records
Following a fatal accident involving school bus driver Frederick Robert Poust III in February 2010, Pennsylvania Rep. Josh Shapiro sent a letter to then Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Allen D. Biehler calling on the agency to make all accident information available to school districts prior to hiring school bus drivers. The DOT amended its policy to expand accident information contained on a driver's record.
The severity of the accident is included on all driver records, regardless of the type of license the individual holds. School districts receive the entire driver history at no cost, and school bus contractors have the option of paying $5 per record or an annual fee of $200 for unlimited access.
Selina Pittenger, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association (PSBA) in Camp Hill, says that these changes took effect in October 2010.
In addition to a review of their driving record, Pennsylvania school bus driver applicants must undergo a criminal background check by the Pennsylvania State Police, a state Department of Public Welfare child abuse clearance, and fingerprinting and a criminal background check by the FBI prior to employment.
Pittenger says that the PSBA is meeting with the state's current administration to discuss streamlining the background check process.
"Right now, each request goes through a different state department," she explains. "Most requests are processed quickly, with results within a few days. The longest time that a report takes is the child abuse clearance, which is about two to three weeks."
Under section 111 of the Pennsylvania School Code, which addresses background check requirements for school employees, an applicant cannot be employed if the criminal history record indicates that the applicant has been convicted of certain offenses — including aggravated assault, kidnapping, statutory rape and endangering the welfare of children — within five years immediately preceding the date of the report.
Pittenger notes that school districts have the authority to be stricter than the state's statute.
New York toughens restrictions on bus driver applicants
In August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation to expand the list of convictions that would either permanently disqualify a bus driver applicant or disqualify the candidate for five years.
Under the new law, which will take effect early next year, crimes for which a conviction would ban a person from becoming a school bus driver include:
● aggravated manslaughter in the first or second degree
● aggravated sexual abuse in the second, third and fourth degree
● sexual abuse in the first degree
● course of sexual conduct against a child in the first or second degree
● facilitating a sex offense with a controlled substance
● predatory sexual assault
● sex trafficking
The law also changes from a temporary five-year prohibition to a permanent prohibition vehicular manslaughter in the first degree, aggravated vehicular homicide and promoting prostitution in the first, second or third degree.
Moreover, added to the list of crimes that would result in a five-year prohibition are forcible touching and criminal sale of a prescription for a controlled substance.
"This legislation is an important step in better protecting children," said Sen. John Bonacic when the bill was signed. "By making sure those who are convicted of a variety of sex crimes, including crimes against children, are unable to pass the required background check and become school bus drivers, we will make New York safer for all children. I appreciate Gov. Cuomo's signing this legislation into law. I also want to single out and applaud the Onteora School District's transportation director, David Moraca, for bringing the need for this legislation to my attention."
Moraca wrote to the editor of local newspaper the Daily Freeman, pointing out that the penal code violations in Section 509 (cc), regarding bus driver disqualifications, had not been updated since 1986. Bonacic said that the letter by Moraca prompted legislation to update the law.