The arrest of a contracted driver in Las Vegas for alleged unlawful conduct with a student in his passenger vehicle has sparked renewed discussions about how to keep students safe in an evolving landscape of alternative transportation options, which are used when the yellow school bus is not available or feasible.
Last Wednesday, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department announced the Feb. 21 arrest of Ranier Braga, a “CareDriver” contracted by HopSkipDrive, a transportation network company that operates similarly to an Uber or Lyft rideshare service. Braga is charged with unlawful contact with a minor and luring a child.
HopSkipDrive, headquartered in Los Angeles, began operating a $250,000 contract in January for the Clark County Department of Child and Family Services to transport students who are in foster care to and from school. That contract was temporarily suspended last week, pending an investigation.
“As soon as we learned about these terrible allegations, we contacted the police to have the driver arrested,” said Clark County in a statement on Feb. 26. “ Prior to hiring HopSkipDrive, county officials contacted school districts and child welfare agencies that also use the company in other jurisdictions. During that review, we did not hear about any problems with the drivers. In addition, all of the drivers are given thorough criminal background checks before being allowed to drive any passengers. HopSkipDrive has been cooperating fully with us and the police during this investigation.”
In a separate statement released on Feb. 26, HopSkipDrive said it upholds and enforces stringent safety standards. For example, the company’s CareDrivers are required to pass a 15-point background check, including fingerprint-based background checks against FBI and state records as well as county-level checks. It also requires drivers to possess at least five years of previous childcare experience.
“We strongly believe that no rider should ever be made to feel uncomfortable during a ride,” HopSkipDrive added.
The Las Vegas police confirmed that Braga does not have a criminal record in Nevada.
“HopSkipDrive maintains a strict zero-tolerance policy against any inappropriate conduct of any user on the platform,” a HopSkipDrive representative told STN last week. “Through our safety practices and incident response protocols, HopSkipDrive was able to terminate this driver’s account within minutes of learning of the allegations, and we are cooperating fully with law enforcement.”
Much local media attention has centered on HopSkipDrive’s business model, which entails using the CareDrivers, many of whom are former social workers, company founder and CEO Joanna McFarland told School Transportation News for a magazine article published this month.
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The issue of drivers molesting students or otherwise engaging in inappropriate conversations or relationships with children is a concern felt across the student transportation industry. In a recent Google news search, STN found at least a dozen reported incidents of school bus drivers being accused of sexual assault this past month. It should be noted that two to three incidents a week equates to fewer than 120 accusations a school year out of nearly 500,000 school buses and drivers that operate across the U.S. each school day.
Still, one occurrence is too many.
In part to combat this issue, school districts and contractors are installing interior video surveillance to protect both the school bus drivers and the students on board.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of transportation network companies (TNC) like HopSkipDrive now operating in parts of the U.S., in addition to other alternative transportation services. Traditional yellow school bus contractors have also joined the burgeoning market for on-demand transportation to and from school, or extracurricular or sporting events.
McFarland adds in the March issue of the magazine that one of her company’s biggest obstacles to overcome is the perception that the service is simply an “Uber for Kids.” Uber has recently experienced its own well-publicized incidents of sexual assault of passengers at the hands of their drivers. Uber responded by requiring the addition of video cameras on all vehicles and the ability of passengers to directly call 911 via the company’s app.
Most taxi cabs, which many districts still use to transport students when a school bus is not available, also feature video cameras that record the ride to protect both the driver and the passenger.
Miriam Ravkin, senior vice president of marketing for HopSkipDrive, said the company offers Safe Ride Support, which monitors trips in real-time and alerts officials to safety-related anomalies, in which they can intervene. In addition, the school district and/or parent of a rider can track the ride as it is happening. Ravkin added that HopSkipDrive is continuously evaluating new features and technologies.
“We are continuously evaluating new features and technologies and weigh[ing] both the positives and negatives of any new technology, including privacy issues and whether school districts maintain a data policy around the technology,” Ravkin said. “No one technology, like video, is a comprehensive solution. There needs to be a holistic approach to safety through operational protocols, procedures, technology, and tools rather than an over-reliance on any one point solution.”
Other transportation network companies, or TNCs, that STN spoke to said they are also considering video surveillance, and some have already added the technology at the request of clients. However, the companies must obtain the signatures of parents that allow their children to be recorded.
Daniel Hernandez is a business development manager at Adroit, a TNC operating in eight states across the country. He said that making cameras a standard feature in the company’s vehicles would be a challenge because Adroit works with contracted drivers, and requiring installation would be hard to enforce.
Currently, he said some cars do have the cameras installed, but it is at the request of the clients. He added that while having interior video installed would be beneficial, managing the footage is a challenge. Hernandez shared that he thinks state legislation is necessary to require the installation of video cameras for drivers transporting passengers in their private vehicles.
Kango, another TNC, performs background checks, fingerprinting and DMV record checks for all of its drivers, shared company founder and CEO Sara Schaer. The company contracts with local babysitters, mothers and teachers who have between 3 and 30 years of childcare experience.
Schaer said that while her company has considered installing video cameras, privacy concerns have stood in the way of implementation. She added that Kango continues to evaluate not only video but also additional technological and operational upgrades.
However, alternative transportation providers, or companies that strive to operate just like a school bus and require the training and background checks as school bus drivers are subject to, are taking different approaches.
ALC Student Transportation Solutions offers video surveillance as part of its contracts for its 400 school district customers in 20 states, and has done so for years, said Megan Carey, the company’s chief visionary officer. While the construction of alternative transportation vehicles (wheelchair-accessible vans, minivans, SUVs, sedans) differs greatly from that of school buses, she added that ALC attempts to offer as many similar safety standards as it can for the students with disabilities, who are homeless or attend schools out-of-district that the company serves.
“We are a partner, we are exactly the same as a school bus, but we are not a school bus,” Carey explained. “So, if the district has cameras on all of its buses and wants it throughout, we provide them on all of our vehicles.”
In other words, if states or school districts require their drivers to go through select training, Carey said ALC drivers in that area will receive the very same training.
Spectra Drive, an alternative transportation company for students with special needs and in foster care in California, is looking to make video a standard offering in all of its vehicles.
Amen Pawar-LaRosa, vice president of marketing and operations for Spectra Drive, relayed that the company has installed video cameras in vehicles when requested by a school district client.
However, after Braga’s arrest became public last week, Pawer-LaRosa said the company is moving forward with installing video cameras in all vehicles. She added that the technology will still require waivers signed by all parents, and the company will not install video cameras in a particular vehicle if a parent objects.
Pawer-LaRosa also pointed out the importance of consistency of drivers to student safety. She said many of the company’s drivers transport the same student throughout their educational career. Spectra Drive, like the other companies interviewed for this article, also offers an app for parents to track their children from the moment they are picked up by the service until they are dropped off.
However, because these types of transportation are so new to the industry, more discussions need to be happening and topics need to be worked through, said Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. He added that he plans to have these discussions while moderating the panel discussion, “No Yellow Bus? Now What? Exploring Alternative Transportation Options for Students with Special Needs,” during the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs Conference in Frisco, Texas on March. 21.
Editor’s Note: School Transportation News left messages with transportation network company Zum seeking comment for this story but had not heard back at this report.