DES MOINES, Iowa — School bus drivers in the state will be subject to background checks under a bill signed into law last week by Gov. Terry Branstad.
The new law specifies that prior to hiring an applicant for a school bus driver position, including a contracted position, an employer “shall have access to and shall review” the Iowa court information system available to the general public, as well as the sex offender registry, the central registry for child abuse and the central registry for dependent adult abuse, for information regarding the applicant.
(Max Christensen, executive officer of school transportation at the Iowa Department of Education [DOE], told SBF that the Iowa court information system refers to the Iowa Courts Online Search website. He said that anyone can go on the site to find information about any type of court case that any resident of the state may have. This would include the person’s driving records.)
An employer must follow the same review procedure every five years upon the renewal of an employee’s school bus driver license issued by the Department of Transportation. In addition, employers must pay for the registry checks, and they must maintain documentation demonstrating compliance with the law.
“I’m happy we will now have mandatory school bus driver background checks here in Iowa,” Christensen said. “It’s something that we have needed for a long time. It appears that the sexual abuse checks, both for child and adult abuse, will be thorough, and I’m very happy about that.”
Under the law, if a school bus driver is listed in the sex offender registry, the central registry for child abuse or the central registry for dependent adult abuse, a termination hearing conducted will be limited to the question of whether the individual was incorrectly listed in the registry.
If after a hearing it is determined that a person is correctly listed in one or more of these registries, the DOE cannot issue to that person authorization to operate a school bus. If the individual is already a bus driver, the DOE must suspend or revoke his or her authorization to operate a school bus.
The DOE will recommend rules and procedures for issuing and suspending or revoking school bus operation authorization. The state board of education will be required to adopt those rules and procedures.
While Christensen is pleased that bus drivers in the state will now have to undergo background checks, he said he has some reservations about the mandatory check of driving records through the Iowa Courts Online website.
“Although the bill does not explicitly say the employer ‘shall check driving records,’ the intent is that by requiring a check of Iowa Courts Online, those driving records will be accessed and checked,” he said.
Christensen went on to say that there are a lot of small school districts in the state, and in these school systems, the responsibility to check driving records through Iowa Courts Online could fall on the shoulders of head bus drivers, janitors, secretaries and other support staff.
“Unless Iowa Courts Online is used properly, there is a huge potential for many things to be missed,” he explained. “In these smaller districts, they may not hire a new driver more than once a year, if that. It’s difficult to be familiar with a system and know how to get the most out of it when you don’t use it very often.”
Christensen added that the website is only searchable by name and birthdate. While the person performing the driving record check should have the applicant's or bus driver's information in front of him or her, “it’s not impossible for two or more people to have the same name and/or birthdate, and that could pose a problem unless the person running the check is really aware of those possibilities,” he said.
Still, Christensen noted that a previous version of the bill did not include the requirement for a driving record check, which he believes is very important given a school bus driver’s duties, and he said that school districts can pay for an additional driving record check outside of the Iowa Courts Online system.
For information about other states’ background check requirements for school bus drivers, as well as pupil transportation operations’ policies and procedures in this regard, check out “Who’s behind the wheel?: optimizing driver background checks.”