COLUMBUS, Ohio — The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services hosted a Sunday afternoon roundtable conversation on how to address "fake news" published by the media amid a very real issue of school bus drivers who perhaps shouldn't be.
Susan Miller, Colorado’s state director and the NASDPTS West region director, opened with the thought that, “it’s disheartening we don’t get much positive press but a lot of negative press.” But it’s important to remember, said President-Elect Michael LaRocco, that “some of the stuff we don’t want to hear is what we need to be listening to.”
NASDPTS Executive Director Charlie Hood cited instances of negative press such as a recent CBS report on unsafe school bus drivers in July that provided inaccurate data, and the New York Attorney General’s October report on school bus drivers running red lights. Hood added that the industry and NASDPTS in particular needs to get ahead of any anticipated fallout from the upcoming trial and National Transportation Safety Board investigation report on last November's fatal Chattanooga, Tennessee school bus crash.
Miller and LaRocco then facilitated a roundtable discussion and posed questions as to which aspects of school bus driver oversight, background testing and qualifications should be regulated at either the federal or state level and which should be best practices. The consensus from the audience that criminal background testing including a national database is an example of what should be mandated.
By show of hands, most state directors confirmed that performance testing was required of school bus drivers. Miller stressed that those tests should happen not only at the time of initial hiring, but periodically or even annually throughout the driver’s employment.
LaRocco confirmed that a problem existed in the physical ability tests being too easy to pass in Indiana, and Arby Creach, director of transportation for Brevard County Public Schools in Florida, revealed, “I’ve got drivers who park in the handicapped spots but can pass that [required annual dexterity] test.”
The question was raised of how to test aging or out-of-shape drivers without being accused of discrimination. T.J. Crockett of the Oregon Department of Education shared that the issue was addressed locally by making the skills testing mandatory for all school bus drivers. It was recommended to use Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications, or BFOQs, and to test drivers on things they would actually have to do on a school bus.
Most of the attendees were opposed to an additional test for school employees who did not possess a CDL but who drive students. LaRocco shared that teachers and coaches unions in Indiana were firm that, if more tests were required, they wouldn’t drive.
Attendees also were not in favor of requiring previous CDL experience because then they would lose young drivers to the trucking industry. Also, “some of our best stable drivers are stay-at-home moms and dads,” said A.K. "Vijay" Ramnarain, the state director at the Virginia Department of Education. “They’re not going to go out and get a job for experience.”
Attendees agreed that background checks on new drivers are non-negotiable and discussed how to prevent those with criminal history from applying for and accepting positions. Miller said that some individuals “jump states” to get through stringent background check requirements because criminal history often is not shared between states.
“If you’re not doing a federal and state background check, you’re not getting all the data—and you are being negligent,” said Diana Hollander, NASDPTS president and Nevada state director.
Taking and checking potential drivers’ fingerprints should be mandatory because that accesses the FBI database, listeners were informed. Additionally, running background checks through the state department of education versus law enforcement can result in limited information.
For contracted companies, a points system was proposed whereby a driver would be released after a certain number of driving offenses. Talk to your insurance company, recommended an attendee with experience in that field, to see what would cause them to not cover a driver, and use that to determine if and when to let someone go.
Nearly all state directors indicated they had mandatory training laws for school bus drivers, but only a handful had requirements of 20 hours or more.
Hood explained that, in spite of the school bus’ safety record, almost nothing is standardized. “There’s just no satisfactory answer” to media questions on why every person who has contact with children in a school bus setting isn’t federally mandated to have a background check, he added. This is an issue that needs action, he said.
Finally, Miller encouraged listeners to “look for good press” and recognize the majority of drivers who do a good job.