State audit finds gaps in training, testing for some school bus drivers

Wednesday, June 25, 2008 | 4:29 p.m. CDT; updated 4:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — School districts have not always met state requirements for bus driver training, drug testing and criminal record checks. But even if they did, State Auditor Susan Montee said Wednesday, it wouldn’t be enough to protect child passengers.

A state audit released Wednesday found that about 3 percent of bus drivers and the aides who ride on the bus to help monitor children did not have a fingerprint criminal record check. And 10 percent of districts reviewed by auditors didn’t properly perform random drug tests because they sampled too few of their drivers.

The audit focused on data from 2006 to 2007 for 30 randomly selected public school districts and three bus company contractors.

Montee said the biggest problem identified is that state regulations for certifying school bus drivers are insufficient. She called for lawmakers to pass legislation tightening the requirements.

“Most districts comply, most of the time, with most of the requirements,” Montee said during a news conference about the audit.

But, she went on to say, “our laws are not adequate to protect the children as they are now.”

Auditors used a Department of Social Services child abuse database that schools don’t have to use to check their bus drivers. Auditors found that of 4,680 bus drivers and aides, 82 people had substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect.

In one case, the audit said that the school district knew about the reported child abuse, had investigated and decided to hire the person.

Montee acknowledged that a small percentage of drivers or aides have potential problems and driver training and testing deficiencies are limited. But she said that it is enough of a problem to justify expanding the background checks.

Bus drivers hired since 2005 must undergo a fingerprint criminal record check, half of the fleet’s drivers are supposed to be randomly tested for drugs and each driver must get eight hours of training each year.

Montee recommends expanding the background searches by using the Family Care Safety Registry. That search checks abuse and neglect cases of children and mental health patients; lists of sex offender and individuals not allowed to work for the Missouri departments of Mental Health and Health and Senior Services; and suspended or revoked licenses for foster parents, child care providers and nursing homes.

She also said school districts should start using Department of Revenue records to periodically check driving histories for bus drivers, something she said fewer than half of the 30 school districts already do.

The audit also identified instances where bus companies were not meeting state and contract obligations. All three of the bus companies that were studied failed to comply with contracts for record-keeping, mandatory physical exams, criminal background checks, training or proper licensing of drivers.

One company, for example, decided to shorten annual training from eight hours to five hours to save money for itself.

School officials told the auditors that they contracted with bus companies to ensure driver requirements were being met and were unaware that there were noncompliance problems. Ten of the 30 school districts studied used bus company contractors, and one of the schools had already assessed $30,000 in penalties against its contractor for noncompliance.

The audit also recommends that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education take greater oversight steps. The state education department conducts school district reviews, of which bus driver safety is a component. The state had during 2006 to 2007 reviewed five districts and reported that all five schools were compliant.

But state auditors found violations in each of the school districts, including drivers who hadn’t received the required eight hours of training, drivers who had problems with their commercial licenses and missing criminal history checks.

The audit recommends that state education officials remind local school districts about bus driver requirements, but Montee said that ultimately the schools need to be responsible for themselves.

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