Drunken school bus drivers put kids’ lives at risk
DAYTON, Tenn. — Trista Freeman climbed onto school bus #41 on a chilly morning in November 2018 and knew immediately something was wrong: When the driver greeted her, she smelled alcohol on his breath.
Minutes later, the bus began swerving across lanes and blowing through red lights. Trista was panic-stricken as the bus, with her and 26 other high school students aboard, nearly hit a car.
“Everyone on the bus was freaking out, yelling for him to stop,” she recalled. “I was really scared.”
Trista, now 16, her older brother, Cody, and some of the other kids on board frantically called or texted their parents, alerting them to the frightening ride in this small manufacturing town about 40 miles northeast of Chattanooga.
“There was so much chaos on the bus. All I know is I wanted off,” said Rose Reynolds, who was then 16. She phoned her mother, and her father, a volunteer firefighter, contacted police.
Other parents started flooding the school transportation department and 911 with calls.
A supervisor radioed the bus driver, Michael Ledbetter, and told him to pull over to the side of the highway. Police arrived and gave him field sobriety tests, which he failed. A blood test later revealed he had a .127 blood alcohol level — more than three times the legal limit for commercial drivers.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” said Lisa Freeman, Trista’s mother. “But what if he had wrecked that bus and hurt those kids? No parent wants to get that phone call.”
Ledbetter, 60, pleaded guilty in July to driving under the influence while accompanied by a child and reckless endangerment. A judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail and 18 months of probation. Both he and his attorney, Mechelle Story Barbato, declined to comment.
What happened that morning in Tennessee happens more often than is commonly known.
Nationwide, more than 1,620 schoolchildren in 38 states have been placed in harm’s way since 2015 by bus drivers arrested or cited for allegedly driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs — a situation that despite its dangers goes largely untracked by government officials, a Stateline investigation has found.
School transportation groups point out that school buses are the safest means for students to get to school, and most drivers would never put children at risk. None of these incidents resulted in a bus driver or passenger fatality, and most of the students were not injured.
But highway safety advocates say officials need to do a better job monitoring drivers entrusted with children’s lives. A months-long Stateline review of police records, court filings and news media reports in the last five years found:
- Police have caught at least 118 drivers from California to Massachusetts operating a school bus while allegedly impaired. Some were hauled off in handcuffs; others were issued citations and not allowed to continue their route.
- More than a third of the cases involved a bus crash. Among them: a driver in New Mexico who admitted to police that he downed several tall cans of Coors Light that morning before smashing his bus into a tree after nearly driving off a bridge with 25 petrified children on board, and a driver in Wisconsin high on pain and anti-anxiety pills who veered off the road and careened into a cornfield with four students on the bus.
- In all, the school bus crashes injured nearly three dozen students, some seriously enough to require a trip to a hospital emergency room.
- While most of the 118 cases involved alcohol, about a third of the drivers allegedly had taken drugs, a situation some officials say is an unfortunate outgrowth of the nation’s struggle to control overuse of opioids and other prescription medication.
- Many other impaired school bus drivers have been identified through random drug and alcohol screenings, sometimes after they’ve finished their routes. Stateline found that at least 260 drivers in five states failed or refused to take the tests since 2015.
- No one at the state or federal level appears to track cases involving impaired school bus drivers, and many state agencies weren’t even able to compile such information.
“It’s pretty shocking,” said Russ Martin, government relations director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, when told of Stateline’s findings. “Certainly, we all know impaired driving is a big problem, but to have it occur with school bus drivers is amazing. We ought to diagnose what the problem is and figure out the best way to fix it.”
But diagnosing the problem isn’t an easy task. While local school districts are aware of individual cases, that data generally isn’t collected, aggregated or analyzed at the state level.
To measure the extent of the problem, Stateline contacted 268 agencies in 50 states and the District of Columbia, from education and transportation departments to state police and court systems, only to find that about 11% could come up with any incidents or data.
Many agencies said they couldn’t capture that level of detail or break out the occupation of a person who was arrested or had a commercial driver’s license suspended or revoked. And most states didn’t know how many school bus drivers had failed random drug and alcohol tests.
In some states, agencies searched their databases and found no cases, even though Stateline had found one or more. Others pulled incidents they thought involved impaired bus drivers, which turned out to be inaccurate because data had been entered incorrectly or a police officer had checked the wrong box on a form. Most couldn’t do a query at all to search for incidents involving impaired school bus drivers.
“This needs to change. States need to be collecting this data and tracking it very thoroughly,” said Ron Replogle, national law enforcement initiatives manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “This is something parents and the general public would want to be monitored closely.”
Driving a school bus isn’t an easy job. Drivers often deal with low pay, split-shifts and part-time hours. They must get special training, have a commercial driver’s license (if the bus carries 16 or more people) and be able to handle a vehicle that can weigh up to 33,000 pounds and carry more than 70 pupils.
“You’ve got a bus full of kids, and they’re acting out, screaming and throwing stuff. It’s a tough job,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “You need to be someone willing to do that who likes kids. All this is going on behind you, and you need to drive the bus safely.”
Every school day, approximately 480,000 buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school and other activities, such as sports events and field trips, according to Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. While many drivers work for school districts, about a third are employed by private bus companies that contract with districts.
Hood points out that school buses are the safest way for children to get to school — much safer than parents driving them. And, he noted, it’s rare to find a school bus driver impaired on duty.
“But 100 is way too many. One is way too many,” he said, adding, “It’s terrible. It makes you cringe.”
Many of the drivers were fired or resigned after they were arrested or cited. Some later pleaded to a lesser charge, resulting in probation or fines, or had the charges dropped, as is common in the criminal justice system. Others, such as Ledbetter, wound up behind bars.
Often, the drivers were stopped with students on board or were on their way to pick them up or had just dropped them off. In some cases, police pulled the bus over after spotting it weaving in and out of traffic or driving in the wrong lane. In others, alarmed drivers traveling on the same road called 911.
Sometimes, quick-thinking students like those in Tennessee were responsible for bus drivers getting snagged.
That’s what happened in northeastern Pennsylvania in November 2015, when eighth-grader Emma Valinote texted her father about Vanessa Baillis’ erratic driving.
“She was saying the driver was all over the road. She was really scared,” said John Valinote Jr. of Sciota, Pennsylvania, who notified school authorities. “If she hadn’t texted me, who knows what would have happened.”
Baillis fell asleep at the wheel, drove off the roadway and almost struck a utility pole, according to a Pennsylvania State Police criminal complaint. An officer found that she had slurred speech and was “very lethargic.”
A blood test later determined Baillis had the painkiller oxycodone and an anti-anxiety drug in her system, according to police records. She pleaded no contest to driving under the influence and reckless endangerment and was sentenced in January 2018 to two years’ probation.
Baillis, 60, told Stateline she had taken the anti-anxiety drug for years at bedtime to sleep and always disclosed it at her annual physical with the school doctor. She had started taking the oxycodone three months before her arrest, she said, when it was prescribed after she broke her shoulder, nose, eye socket and vertebrae in a serious car crash that kept her out of work for months.
When she returned to the job one week before her arrest, Baillis said, she had not been weaned from the drugs, but had quit them, cold turkey. She said she stayed off them that entire workweek. She doesn’t remember whether she might have taken them again that Friday night, but said she is sure she didn’t take them the Monday morning she was arrested or the day before.
“I stopped taking them, thinking that I was doing the right thing. I knew I could not drive with them in my system,” she said. “I stopped the medication on my own, which caused the opposite of what I was trying to do.”
Baillis said she was not impaired when she was arrested, but instead had suffered a seizure behind the wheel of the bus caused by her abrupt withdrawal from the medication.
Her lawyer, Thomas Sundmaker, said Baillis was hospitalized and diagnosed with encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that can cause seizures. Any drugs left in her blood the morning of her arrest were residual, he added.
Monroe County prosecutor Curtis Rogers said he agreed to reduce the charges against Baillis because the children’s parents were “very forgiving” and there may have been other medical issues involved. But he said he thinks she still was impaired at the time of her arrest.
“We accept the idea she was trying to get off those medications. Our feeling was that she didn’t pop some pills that morning,” Rogers said. “But she still had these drugs in her system, and she pleaded no contest to a DUI. She put herself in the situation of driving a bus in an unsafe condition.”
Baillis, who resigned from her job days after her release from the hospital, said the incident and its aftermath have devastated her, both emotionally and financially.
“I am beyond deeply sorry that I scared those seven kids [on the bus] and their parents,” she said. “It’s beyond words to describe how I regret that.
“I loved every student that was ever on my bus,” she added. “I have a box of letters from parents and cards and gifts that I’ve received during my 18 years driving a bus. Unfortunately for me, my entire career was defined by those two hours.”
Baillis is one of at least two dozen school bus drivers whose arrest or citation by police involved drugs prescribed by a doctor, often narcotics or tranquilizers.
“It’s a cultural issue. The epidemic is impacting every single sector of our population,” said Robert Hull, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “Sadly to say, we, as an education community, are not insulated.”
Other school bus drivers arrested for drug-impaired driving allegedly had used illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine or heroin.
In Oklahoma City, Odis Pitts dropped off six students and was heading to pick up dozens more one April morning in 2015 when he crashed his bus into multiple cars in separate collisions, then struck a railroad bridge. One crash left a 63-year-old man in a wheelchair for at least two years.
Officers found Pitts unresponsive at the wheel, his eyes open and twitching, according to a police report. He was high on synthetic marijuana, or K2. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with five years suspended.
Pitts could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Paul Faulk, declined to discuss the case, but said his client served 16 months in prison and was released in December 2017. He remains on probation.
In some cases, impaired school bus drivers were spotted when they showed up for work or returned from their route and a supervisor or staffer suspected they were under the influence. They might have had glassy eyes, been unsteady on their feet or smelled of booze.
In East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, Lourdes Torres already had dropped off nearly two dozen high school students when she arrived at a local elementary school one May afternoon in 2018. A school resource officer said he saw Torres get off the bus and stagger to the front door before heading to the school’s bathroom, according to a police report. He later confronted her and smelled alcohol. She failed field sobriety tests and conceded she had a couple of “vodka on the rocks” at about 10 a.m.
Torres pleaded guilty to DUI and child endangerment; she was sentenced in April 2019 to just under one year minimum to just under two years maximum in jail plus three years’ probation.
“It was very disturbing,” said David Marra, the Monroe County prosecutor who handled the case. “Her blood alcohol level was .292, and she was driving a school bus.” (The federal legal blood alcohol threshold is .04 for commercial drivers, including school bus drivers.)
Torres did not respond to a written request for comment.
Sundmaker, who also represented Torres, told Stateline she had no prior criminal history and was “having a difficult time in her life” when the incident occurred.
“She had some setbacks and some problems. Not everybody can pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move on,” he said. “Sometimes, things become overwhelming.”
In Summit, Illinois, it was a school principal who stopped an impaired driver from taking off with six young special needs pupils in December 2017.
A bus attendant who had been on board notified his bosses that something was seriously wrong with driver Karen Kawa when she was on her way to pick up children at Walsh Elementary School. After the bus arrived and the students were loaded on, principal Christine Smith confronted Kawa, whom she said appeared dazed and couldn’t even stand up.
“The kids were on there, and she had the bus running. I didn’t want her to hit the gas and be upset and pull out of there. We couldn’t have stopped her,” Smith told Stateline. “I told her I was not comfortable with her driving the bus and that I was going to call local authorities. I removed the keys from the bus.”
Police arrested Kawa, who turned out to have a blood alcohol level of .231, according to a police report. She pleaded guilty in July 2019 to aggravated DUI while driving a school bus. She was sentenced to one year in prison.
Her attorney, Robert Olson of Oak Lawn, Illinois, said Kawa was loading the children onto the vehicle and the key was in the ignition, which means that a driver can be charged with DUI in Illinois.
“She was very remorseful,” Olson said. “She knew she screwed up. She knew she had a problem.”
Kawa did not respond to email or a letter requesting an interview.
Smith calls the whole incident “pretty shocking.”
“I’ve been a principal for 14 years and a teacher for 12,” she said. “I’ve never had anything like that happen before.”
Slipping through the cracks
While there are safeguards to prevent school bus drivers from driving impaired, some drivers slip through the cracks.
Federal regulations require that commercial drivers, including school bus drivers, be tested for alcohol and drugs before they are hired, randomly during their employment and after an accident under certain conditions. They also mandate testing if there is “reasonable suspicion” drivers are using alcohol or drugs. Supervisors must be trained in spotting signs of alcohol or drug use. Bus drivers who fail those tests can lose their commercial driver’s license, at least for a time.
In Illinois, for example, state officials suspended the commercial licenses of at least 55 school bus drivers since 2015 for failing a drug or alcohol test after a supervisor or school employee had reasonable suspicion of them being impaired, according to Henry Haupt, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office. Eleven others were suspended for refusing to take the test.
School Bus Driver Requirements
Federal law requires school bus drivers to hold a commercial driver’s license issued by their state, if the bus carries 16 or more people. They must pass skills and knowledge tests and have a special “endorsement” to carry students, which requires additional testing.
The federal government requires that commercial drivers be certified every two years, a process that includes a medical exam. School bus drivers typically are exempt under federal law, but many states require certification or enforce even tougher standards.
School bus drivers, like other commercial drivers, may not use alcohol within four hours of going on duty. Those found to have any measurable amount of alcohol in their system must be placed “out of service” for 24 hours. That means they are not allowed to operate a commercial vehicle during that time.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has set the blood alcohol threshold for driving under the influence at .04 for commercial drivers, including school bus drivers, making them subject to sanctions on their license. (States have established a .08 DUI standard for regular drivers, except Utah, where it is .05.)
But reasonable suspicion relies on someone eyeballing the driver. That doesn’t always happen.
In large school districts with hundreds of buses on the road, doing an individual inspection of every driver would be “extremely difficult,” said Domenech, the director of the school superintendents’ group.
And even if it’s not a large system, bus drivers aren’t necessarily observed by anyone before they start their route.
“The problem is that quite often, there are times when nobody might see the driver when they come to check in,” said Robert Berkstresser, a commercial bus expert in San Diego who is a former school transportation director.“ The driver may log in. The dispatcher may be looking at the screen and see the driver checked in and that’s it.”
In some areas, particularly rural ones, drivers don’t even pick up their buses at a central location. They take them home, called “parking out.” It’s more convenient for them and more efficient for school systems with long routes.
“In many rural areas, the driver lives 50 miles from the school, so they take their bus to their own barn, not a bus barn,” said Hull, the president of the state education boards group. “Look at Wyoming, Nebraska — very sparsely populated states. There’s no way there can be an in-person check-in. It’s not feasible.”
But Mike Martin — executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, an umbrella group of local school transportation directors and private contractors — said it strongly recommends against drivers taking buses home. It’s “absolutely best practice,” he said, for them to be observed by a transportation staffer before starting their route.
“It’s important for somebody at the transportation center to have an interaction with the driver on a daily basis, and in some cases, more than once a day.”
Random testing gaps
Random drug and alcohol testing also is intended to deter school bus drivers from driving under the influence.
When drivers are selected for a random screening, they’re told to report at once to a testing center. That can happen before, during or after their route. If they fail, they are removed from driving a bus and referred for evaluation and treatment. Once they complete it, they are eligible to be rehired, but must pass “return to duty” drug and alcohol tests and undergo follow-up testing for up to five years. Employers don’t have to retain or re-hire them, and school officials say many don’t.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking and bus industry, used to require that employers have 50% of their pool of commercial drivers randomly tested for drugs each year and 10% for alcohol. But in 2016, the agency lowered that standard to 25% for drugs and 10% for alcohol. It made the change after three annual surveys of employers found the failure rate for controlled substances had fallen below 1%.
States and local school districts can have more stringent standards. In Utah, for example, the state board of education still requires a drug testing pool of 50%. The same is true in some school districts in Alabama, said Chad Carpenter, pupil transportation administrator for the state Department of Education.
MADD’s Replogle said the federal government’s decision to reduce the testing pool was a poor one, especially at a time when prescription drug abuse has exploded in the United States.
“I would rather see more random testing,” he said. “Less is not where we want to be going.”
Random testing has led to the arrests of some school bus drivers.
In Bossier Parish, Louisiana, police arrested two bus drivers who failed random testing after their routes, one in 2015; the other in 2016. Both drivers, who parked their buses at home, were fired. In that district, a police officer is contacted whenever a driver fails a random test.
“Random testing works,” said Lt. Adam Johnson, security director for the parish’s schools. “Otherwise they could have slipped by.”
But how often school bus drivers fail random testing is anyone’s guess. Most states don’t collect that information, which often is known only by local school districts and bus contractors.
“Since there is not a specific state statute requiring them to do so . . . school districts in Minnesota are not required to post or report that data,” Wendy Hatch, a spokeswoman for the state’s education department, said in an email to Stateline.
Across the country, only five state education departments were able to provide information about random testing results.
One was in Oregon, where at least 78 bus drivers since 2015 have failed or refused to take a random drug test. Five others failed or refused a blood alcohol test. In Maryland, at least 100 drivers tested positive for drugs and eight for alcohol, from 2015 through 2018.
In some areas, school districts aren’t even performing the amount of random testing required by the federal government.
In Washington County, Tennessee, where a school bus driver was arrested on DUI charges while on duty in February 2018, a transportation supervisor was fired after allegedly lying about the frequency of random tests for drivers, according to local news reports. The drivers reportedly had not been tested in four years.
William Flanary, the current director of schools, confirmed in an email that a transportation supervisor working for his predecessor had been fired. He said the district follows drug and alcohol testing protocol “carefully and in a timely manner” and would not comment further.
In South Carolina, state education department auditors cited two school districts in 2018 for failing to test the required number of drivers.
And in New York, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released an audit of seven upstate school districts in 2018 that found 22 out of 560 school bus drivers weren’t on the random testing list who should have been.
“School bus safety is an important issue. The concern is when you find gaps,” DiNapoli said in an interview with Stateline. “The purpose of this audit is to illustrate for school boards and parents that this is an issue.”
States need to start compiling data about impaired school bus drivers, DiNapoli said, to determine what’s going on and pinpoint areas where there might be a problem. “There should be one single entity in a state that pulls the information together.”
Patchwork of agencies
But compiling information about impaired school bus drivers is a challenge because so many agencies have a hand in it on the local, state and federal levels.
“That’s one of the reasons why the data is so hard to come by,” said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, a trade association for private transportation companies that contract with school districts. “There’s not a central body that says, ‘We’re going to have that information.’”
Stateline found that most state education departments, for instance, didn’t collect information about impaired school bus drivers and instead suggested contacting individual school districts or another state agency.
Most motor vehicle departments said they couldn’t pull data showing action taken against school bus drivers’ commercial licenses for driving a bus while impaired because they were unable to track drivers by occupation.
Nor could most public safety departments or state police produce information about how many allegedly impaired school bus drivers were arrested or cited.
“We just don’t have robust data when it comes to vehicle type when you’re arrested for DUI,” said Washington State Patrol Lt. Rob Sharpe.
Local police officers who arrest impaired school bus drivers may include those details in their reports, but that often isn’t transmitted to state law enforcement agencies.
“It’s a great idea to be able to access information like that, but we don’t have the ability right now to do it,” said Trooper First Class Tanya Compagnone, a Connecticut State Police spokeswoman. “Part of it may be budget and resources.”
Some state law enforcement agencies and transportation departments were able to query crash databases and provide information about cases that involved impaired school bus drivers. But others couldn’t determine whether the impaired person was the bus driver or the other driver. Or they concluded that there were no such cases, when, in fact, there were, Stateline’s investigation found.
The situation was much the same in state courts. Some court officials said they couldn’t do queries at all. Many who could were unable to search for charges against impaired school bus drivers because their state didn’t have a statute specific to that crime. Nor could they search for a defendant by occupation or type of vehicle.
In North Dakota, Jeff Stillwell, an analyst for the state courts, said his system could pull up case numbers and names of people with a DUI conviction in which a commercial vehicle was involved, but couldn’t determine whether it was a bus, van or truck.
“We are now looking at adding a field to our system that would have school buses,” he said, after Stateline’s request for information.
Safety advocates and transportation experts say collecting data about impaired school bus drivers is essential to assessing the problem.
“These cases come up and get splashed across the news for a few days, and then they disappear. Nobody asks, ‘How big of a problem is this?’” said Berkstresser, the commercial bus expert. “Maybe it’s time that we start tracking it, so we can come up with a solution.”
This article first appeared in USA TODAY and Jan. 22, 2020, in Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
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