Bus Drivers Hired despite No Licenses, Many Tickets Duval's Screening Process Missed Dozens of Violations Due to Low Hiring Standards

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Patterson and Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writers

Duval County's school bus service hired dozens of drivers this year that other Florida school districts would have rejected as safety risks, a Times-Union analysis of personnel records shows.

The analysis found that people with bad driving records, suspended driver's licenses and unsettling arrest histories were able to get jobs transporting children mostly because Duval County set low hiring standards. A few others, the ones who had invalid licenses, were hired because school and bus company employees didn't enforce standards that are spelled out in state law.

The county's bus drivers included:

-- A man who had 15 traffic tickets since 1995, six for speeding or careless driving.

-- Twenty-two people cited at least five times each in the same period.

-- And others with records of reckless driving or leaving the scene of an accident -- one in his own bus.

After examining hiring standards in five other large Florida counties, the newspaper concluded that 38 drivers hired here probably would have been turned down automatically in at least three of the other counties. Another 53 would have been rejected in one or two places.

School Superintendent John Fryer said he was disturbed by some of the newspaper's findings. He told subordinates to start evaluating other school districts' criteria and said there will be steps to increase scrutiny on drivers.

"The buck stops here," he said. "If we miss something, I take full responsibility and will take steps to correct the problem."

Fryer said he didn't know many specifics of Duval County's driver criteria. He said he wanted to make comparisons before promising a change but was inclined to raise requirements. A top administrator said Fryer told him to discuss new requirements with bus contractors by next month. Fryer said he had hoped to improve bus service when the school system reorganized its transportation system this year, dividing the county into four franchises that were awarded to separate bus contractors.

"When it comes to the safety of children, I'm interested in higher standards," Fryer said. "We wanted to move to a higher quality of service and a part of that is enforcing standards we think are right. Just because a driver passed before, doesn't mean they're good enough now."

The bus contractors, whose firms replaced a patchwork of dozens of independent companies, said they mostly hired drivers the school system used before. They added that the school transportation office approved all hiring decisions individually and issued certificates authorizing the drivers to work. They said many of their employees have driven children to school for decades with good driving records.

But the ones with bad records can be surprisingly bad. Dozens of people received three or four traffic tickets apiece in the past few years, on charges ranging from minor equipment problems to careless driving that resulted in serious accidents. Parking tickets were not included in those counts.

Other drivers have faced criminal charges, including a woman charged with possession of cocaine paraphernalia the week before school started and a man once charged with keeping a pistol on his bus.

While interviews showed a number of people involved in busing were open to raising local standards, none claimed direct responsibility for the county's current requirements. Some, including School Board members, knew little about what the requirements were.

The school system owes parents more assurance their children will be all right on a bus, said Tracy Scott, president of the Duval County Council of PTAs.

"We've trusted that the school system will make sure that the people driving our children are safe," she said. "I thought the drivers were supposed to go through safety checks, so I don't understand why these people are driving our kids. …