Keeping Our Children Safe: The Vital Need to Conduct and Enforce Background Checks for School Bus Drivers

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Commercial truck drivers who deliver vital commodities across the United States must pass thorough background checks and meet stringent safety regulations. Yet a recent CBS News investigation revealed that many school bus drivers – the people charged with protecting the safety of children on the road to and from schools and summer camps – are not held to the same exacting standards. And the results of such leniency have occasionally produced serious consequences.

According to the article, there are approximately 22,000 bus crashes a year, leaving thousands of students injured. And on average, at least once a week a school bus driver is arrested for driving under the influence, for child pornography, or even sexual assault.

In one day alone, around 25 million children ride a school bus in the United States. The age-old practice of deploying school buses to transport groups of kids reduces the number of vehicles on the road and frees up time for busy parents.

But is the precious cargo in the care of the safest and most qualified drivers?

Truck Drivers vs. School Bus Drivers: Different Standards

School bus drivers must possess a commercial driver’s license. But, unlike most commercial truck drivers whose routes take them across state lines and are therefore regulated to follow many federal safety rules, few school buses travel interstate and aren’t engaged in promoting interstate commerce, so the same federal safety rules don’t apply. As a result, some drivers who would not qualify for a job working for a large commercial transportation company may still be eligible to drive a school bus.

Cross country semi-truckers are highly regulated and are often monitored, not only for criminal or driving-related offenses, but for other medical conditions that may inhibit their ability to safely operate a commercial vehicle. So while freight travels safely across state lines, children may be driven by people with less-than squeaky clean backgrounds.

As quoted in the CBS article, “‘There are no universal standards. So there is nothing that automatically will disqualify a school bus driver who, let’s say, has an extensive criminal background or DUIs or has caused too many crashes,’ [transportation attorney Steve] Gursten said.”

Information discovered during background checks is not always being considered by employers. The article highlights the case of a person hired to drive a school bus in Tennessee even though a background check revealed that the individual had a criminal history that included possessing both a weapon and drugs in a school zone.

The heart of the problem is the shortage of bus drivers. 90% of school districts report a shortage of bus drivers. Large school bus companies are turning to every avenue to recruit drivers. Although some applicants were found with unfavorable backgrounds, they may be hired anyway because of the steep demand for drivers.

Some large school bus companies are turning to classified advertisement websites to find drivers. One company even offered a former employee his job back, despite his having been under investigation for multiple charges of child pornography.

As with teachers and others who work with children, a thorough background screening policy is a safe and prudent practice. As the CBS report spotlights, avoiding a comprehensive background check and/or not enforcing findings may prove disastrous.

According to Steven Spencer, managing director of transportation at HireRight, a global provider of background screening services, “Though meeting administrative requirements may seem like a daunting task, breaking down the process into easily performed steps will help companies hire the best bus drivers, retain their talent and apply safe driver training practices designed to protect fragile passenger cargo.”

Three Simple Steps to Help Ensure an Effective Screening Program

Best practices for implementing or strengthening an effective, affordable and compliant driver screening program include three phases.

  1. Results from the first phase may typically be obtained in less than one minute (NOTE: It is common for an offer to be made for applicants who pass these searches):
    1. Motor Vehicle Reports
    2. Social Security Number Trace
    3. A commercial driver work history database
    4. Commercial Driver’s License Information System (CDLIS)
    5. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’ s (FMCSA) Pre-Employment Screening Program (PSP)
  2. Organizations may also want to conduct additional research on candidates who pass the first phase, including:
    1. Manual employment and drug/alcohol history verifications on those past employers not returned in the commercial driver work history database search
    2. Criminal record search (in compliance with state, county or local Ban the Box regulations)
  3. The final phase would include the following additional checks:
    1. Pre-employment drug test
    2. Physical exam


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HireRight is a leading provider of on-demand employment background checks, drug and health screening, and electronic Form I-9 and E-Verify solutions that help employers automate, manage and control background screening and related programs.

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