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October 13, 2011  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Who’s behind the wheel?: optimizing driver background checks

Officials say it is important to conduct both federal and state checks, as well as monitor applicants’ driving records. Pupil transporters discuss their operations’ hiring policies and procedures, which include contacting previous employers, and also share suggestions on ways the industry could protect itself against undesirable candidates who move from state to state.

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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. 

Federal and state background checks through fingerprint scanning are important for obtaining comprehensive information about applicants.
<p>Federal and state background checks through fingerprint scanning are important for obtaining comprehensive information about applicants.</p>

"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.

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