I-TEAM UPDATE: State director to “look into” RCSS school bus driver hires following investigation

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Thursday, December 20, 2018
News 12 @ 6 O'clock / NBC 26 at 7

Augusta, GA. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Before the sun rises drivers in Richmond County are getting ready to pick up more than 20,000 students who ride the school bus.

An I-TEAM investigation uncovered some of the people behind the wheel were hired with criminal records and a history of dangerous driving.

Like, one driver who got three speeding tickets and pleaded guilty to driving 'Too Fast For Conditions.' The most recent violation was a year before she was hired as a Richmond County Bus Driver.

A little more than one year into her time as a Richmond County bus driver she got her first reprimand for driving the school bus while using her cell phone. She got a second letter of reprimand a year later after getting into a minor collision near Copeland Elementary. Again, officials found she was driving the school bus while using her cell phone.

We found another driver admitted he got a DUI on his application. He was hired anyway in 2015.

We found another driver pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and to obstruction of a law enforcement officer. She was hired anyway.

That driver's original ticket shows she was stopped with a bottle of vodka on the driver's floorboard.

We tried for three months to speak with Richmond County School System officials. First reaching out to the school spokesman and then to Superintendent Angela Pringle. Dr. Pringle first agreed and then her spokesman canceled the interview.

We also tried to get Dr. Pringle to answer our questions at the public board committee meeting in December, but she didn't answer our question then either.

The Director of Pupil Transportation for the Georgia Department of Education did agree to sit down and talk with us after we sent him a link to our story.

"I think it raised our eyebrows initially. Those are things we have the opportunity to look into and investigate ourselves. Maybe not investigate is the right word, but certainly look into and check with the local director and superintendent to validate that information," said Director of Pupil Transportation, Pat Schofill.

We told him we learned Richmond county schools wasn't following its own policy.

Richmond County School System's Transportation Employee Manual says candidates MVR's can't contain "records of "serious offenses as defined by the Georgia DDS, citations for driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances or an excessive number of minor traffic violations or accident."

"I think it is very important from our standpoint to express high expectations at the local level. We want to have high expectations of student safety at each local level," said Schofill.

We asked what the GADOE transportation office can do if they find a district or school system in Georgia is not following its own policy.

"I think we need to realize from our standpoint as a state agency, We are about compliance. We are not an enforcement agency. So, therefore, we don't have that responsibility to go out .. I don't want to put this flippantly, but we don't have a gun we can't go out and arrest folks and punish people," said Schofill.

We asked if concerns like this have come up before concerning hiring drivers with criminal backgrounds and records of traffic violations.

"My experiences have been not um, as I have talked to local directors. They have to make tough decisions and sometimes those decisions include hiring individuals that may have had a DUI 30 years ago, ok, but that is a decision that is made at the local level," said Schofill.

Director Schofill told us he will be reaching out to Richmond County School System to get more information.



Thursday, December 13, 2018
News 12 @ 6 O'clock / NBC 26 at 7

RICHMOND COUNTY, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- A months-long I-Team investigation uncovered some bus drivers in Richmond County who had criminal records and long lists of driver violations before being hired by the board of education.

We even found one driver who got to keep her job after being caught texting and driving on the school bus twice.
One time ending in a crash near Copeland Elementary School.

Texting and driving no .. no," Bernice Lewis says in disbelief.

"The first time she should have been fired. The second time? I don't even know what to say there is no reason for it," Bernice says.

The Richmond County School Board hasn't responded to our investigation, but parents are speaking out.

“ I couldn't believe that these people are allowed to drive buses period,” Larry Thomas says.

"You are driving someone's kid around. I would hate to have my kid, my grandkid gets hurt because of somebody being that negligent, Larry shrugs, “it's that simple."

And as for school leaders?

"No, I'd like to hear something from them," Larry tells News 12.

South Carolina Department of Education says every school board comes up with their own hiring guidelines but at a minimum, they can't hire sex offenders or felons. They also can't hire anyone with more than four points on their license.

In Georgia, you have to be fingerprinted and pass a background check. Richmond County’s statement says people are cleared based off time passed since the offense, nature of the job sought among other things.



Wednesday, December 12, 2018
News 12 at 6 O'clock / NBC 26 at 7

AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- Every slot in Tracy Stone's photo album is filled with a grandbaby. Every picture is a happy one, but one smiling face dredges up the saddest memory.

"It was heartbreaking," said Stone.

In 2013, her grandbaby Jaidyn was getting off the school bus when an oncoming driver hit him.

"The bus driver had already had the bus sign stop out, the flashing lights were on," said Stone.

He died 16 days later.

In her grandson's accident, the bus driver wasn't at fault but instead focused, following all safety laws. Years later she still holds her breath when her other grandkids get onto a school bus.

What our I-TEAM uncovered took her breath away.

We showed Stone a driver that got a speeding ticket in 2003 and 2004, another ticket in 2009 for not wearing a seatbelt. Two more tickets in 2010 for not putting seatbelts on two kids in the car and another ticket for speeding in 2013. The driver pleaded guilty to driving too fast for conditions in 2014.

The next year Richmond County Board of Education hired her as a school bus driver.

"Don't they look at records before they .. how did this get through?" asked Stone.

She didn't just get through. We found this letter of reprimand in the driver's personnel file showing Richmond County School Board kept the driver on after she was found using her cell phone while driving the bus in 2016.

The school threatened to fire her if it happened again, but it did.

In 2017, the Board of Education found the same driver at fault for a school bus crash near Copeland Elementary School.

The letter shows school officials checked cameras on the bus. They saw the bus driver was texting again but still did not fire the driver.

"I always assumed the board of education was looking out for my best interest, but this .. they can't be," said Stone.

We showed Stone driver after driver. including, one driver court records show pleaded guilty to punching a deputy in the face.

Another driver was sentenced for possession of marijuana in 2007 and pleaded guilty to obstruction of a law enforcement officer.

The driver's original ticket says the driver fled from a deputy with his lights on and the chase ended in an accident. When stopped deputies report finding an "open bottle of vodka on the driver's floorboard."

Four years later Richmond county hired that person to drive a school bus.

Another driver admitted on the employment application to being arrested for driving drunk," unable to stand." Seven years later the Board of Education hired this person to be a school bus driver.

"I'm shocked because I thought their hiring was stricter. I don't understand how that it happening," said Stone.

In October the News 12 I-TEAM asked the school system for a sit-down interview with the person in charge of hiring.

The school refused twice via email. We followed up with calls and texts.

Then, we emailed dr. Pringle in November and told her what we found. She first agreed to an interview, but later her spokesman canceled and sent us this statement.

"The Richmond County Board of Education does not discriminate on the basis of sex, age, race, disability, religion, or national origin for employment with the Richmond County School System (RCSS). Each applicant for any position within the system is considered through an individual assessment of their qualifications to perform a particular job and an analysis of any other factors relevant to their employment, including, but not limited to, the results of a criminal background check. Upon receipt of the results of a background check, the Department of School Safety and Security utilizes hiring guidelines to determine whether a prospective employee is cleared to work for the system based on the nature and gravity of any offense or conduct, the time that has passed since the offense, conduct and/or completion of the sentence, the nature of the job sought, and additional guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If additional information or scrutinization is necessary, the Department of School Safety and Security will conduct an inquiry prior to clearing the prospective employee for hire.

 

In addition to the steps above, a certified copy of a prospective bus driver's Driver History Report (MVR) is reviewed for consideration prior to hiring. MVRs are also pulled twice a year to ensure drivers remain eligible to drive. Throughout the year, drivers submit to random drug screening and are required to complete an annual physical assessment which also includes a drug screening. Additionally, if there is an accident involving a school bus, the driver undergoes an alcohol and drug screening.

 

In the Richmond County School System, the safety of our students is of paramount importance. We are proud of the safety record of our bus drivers and the incredible work they do every day to transport 24,000 students to and from school safely, twice a day." 

After three months of asking, we went to a public board meeting to talk to her. We approached Dr. Pringle before the board went into executive session.
Here's the transcription of our conversation:

Dr. Pringle: Actually, actually you are in the wrong space.
Kelly Wiley: We are just wanting to know why you aren't answering our questions.
Pringle: What questions are you talking about.
Kelly Wiley: About the bus drivers.
Dr. Pringle: Kelly, you are so inappropriate. You have crossed the media line.
Kelly Wiley: We'd love to talk to you after.
Dr. Pringle: Ok, thank you, ma'am.

We waited after the meeting, but Dr. Pringle didn't come back out to talk to us.

Tracy Stone had a lot of question she wanted us to ask. Most importantly, how did these drivers get hired?

"Makes me feel like going and picking up my grandkids from school instead of letting them ride the bus because apparently, the system is not what I thought it was," said Stone.

Richmond County Schools policy is applicants have to pass a background check and maintain an "acceptable" driving record.

Georgia law says drivers have to be fingerprinted and have criminal records check.

South Carolina law says drivers can't have more than four points on their license and that they have to pass a background check.