No one can say for sure how many felons drive school buses for Columbia Public School District, but as of last week, the number dropped by one.
Deputy Superintendent for Administration Jacque Cowherd said a bus driver employed by First Student, the company the district contracts with to provide bus service, was fired last week as the result of a recent initiative to purge the bus driver ranks of certain convicted criminals. He said he did not know the name of the bus driver or what felony he was convicted of, although he thinks it had something to do with theft.
Cowherd said he did not want to know anything more than that a bus driver had been fired because of his felony background.
First Student Manager Denise Apperson did not return phone calls Friday, the company’s attorney Audrey Adams declined to comment, and public relations employee Jennifer Robinson did not return a phone call Friday.
Cowherd said state regulations allow people who have committed theft-related felonies to receive a school bus driver’s license, but the district has stricter standards.
He said that in January the district started a concentrated effort to ensure First Student was performing background checks on all of its bus drivers at least once a year, and then removing drivers with inappropriate criminal records. But he said he personally started looking over First Student’s shoulder last month after he was informed by state officials that a Missourian reporter had obtained the results of all bus driver background checks conducted by the Missouri Highway Patrol for the state Department of Education since 2005.
According to the Department of Revenue Web site, all school districts are required to perform fingerprint-based criminal background checks for all new bus drivers as of June 2005.
Department of Education data show that nearly half of all First Student bus driver applicants since 2005 have had been found to have criminal backgrounds.
However, the background checks are performed after the employee starts driving, and if they are found to have crimminal backgrounds, they should be let go.
But it remains unclear exactly how many felons drive buses for the district.
Cowherd said he knows of three other bus drivers who have committed felonies. He said they were arrested for passing bad checks, and the district will not press to have those drivers fired because they were not convicted of a felony that suggests they might present a danger to students, such as assault, driving while intoxicated or a sex offense.
First Student refused to provide the names of its bus drivers so the Missourian could run its own check. Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for student support services, said the district does not have the names of school bus drivers and would not ask ask First Student for such a list.
“We contract with First Student but we do not tell them who they can and cannot hire as bus drivers,” Barnett said via e-mail.
However, according to the district’s contract with First Student, the district does tell the bus company who can work as a bus driver. Exhibit E paragraph 20 of the contract states First Student shall ensure that all drivers “have no criminal record — no felonies or serious misdemeanors.”
Cowherd said he knows of no other bus drivers with serious criminal histories than the three mentioned earlier, but he said Blake Tekotte, the district’s transportation director, is still conducting a review of bus driver backgrounds. Tekotte said last month that normally he makes “random” examinations of First Student’s records and if he finds that an employee who has not passed a criminal background check is still driving a bus, he tells First Student management.
Asked last month how many bus drivers currently have criminal records, he said he hoped the answer was zero. But he said, “I wouldn’t be shocked if some slipped between the cracks.”
Despite the increased scrutiny of First Student employees, some people think the background checks and enforcement are still too lax.
Carla Findlay, a bus driver for First Student for seven years, said she has never undergone a fingerprint background check and knows of several other drivers who also have not been checked.
She said most bus drivers are upstanding people, but as a mother she would not want to put her children on a bus driven by a person who has not undergone a thorough criminal history check.
“Somebody could fall through the cracks, and that’s pretty scary,” Findlay said.
She said she does not think a bad check charge should prevent a person from driving a school bus, but she said a background check could ensure that people who have committed any crime against a child don’t get a job driving a bus.
“I don’t think those people should be driving a bus just like I don’t think they should be teaching school,” she said.
Ronald Cook, who drove school buses for First Student for 11 years before retiring last year, has encouraged the school district to fingerprint all First Student Employees. He said First Student avoids removing drivers who have failed background checks because the company has a hard time retaining drivers.
“First Student will hire anybody who can fit behind a wheel because they need a warm body,” he said. “The only reason I’m blowing the whistle is because they keep repeating the same mistakes. One of these days something is going to happen, and at least I can say I tried to stop it.”
Tekotte agreed that the bus drivers First Student employs are sometimes “not the cream of the crop.”
“It’s a challenge to get quality bus drivers,” he said. “This is my sixth year, and every year we’re short bus drivers.”