Lack of checks on drivers leads to school closings



The school bus contractor had failed to submit drivers' fingerprints to the state.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- The city school district, one of the state's largest, canceled classes Thursday after a contractor responsible for some school bus routes discovered it had not done complete criminal background checks on drivers, school officials said.
First Student Inc. had not submitted any of its bus drivers' information to the state for checks since August 2004, said Jennifer Brindisi, spokeswoman for Attorney General Marc Dann. His office notified other Ohio schools that use the agency for busing, including some in the Cincinnati area and Lorain County in Northeast Ohio, she said.
First Student's decision to ground its Columbus fleet came two days after one of the company's drivers was arrested by Columbus police on a charge of cocaine possession. The driver also had three previous convictions for driving under the influence.
The district, which has about 56,000 pupils, planned to resume classes today, spokesman Michael Fulwider said. All but five of the agency's 60 Columbus bus drivers cleared background checks Thursday through the state's Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, Brindisi said.
Brindisi said the records of the remaining five require further investigation.
Failure to check all drivers
When First Student learned about the arrested driver's record Wednesday, it began reviewing its files in Columbus and decided to suspend service after finding evidence that its staff had failed to submit all drivers' fingerprints to the state for processing, the company said in a statement.
"First Student is deeply sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused parents, children and school officials, but we will not compromise our standards or requirements of the law when it comes to the safe transport of your children," the statement said.
First Student handles 48 of the Columbus Public Schools' roughly 670 bus routes for the district's own schools, as well as charter and private schools. Nineteen of 22 Catholic schools in Franklin County also were forced to close Thursday, affecting 7,800 pupils.
The district decided to call off school when it was unable to find a way to fill the gaps left in bus service, Superintendent Gene Harris said at a news conference.
"We worked through the night trying to devise a plan to get schools open, because our first priority is to have school. We don't take that lightly. So I pressed my staff very hard to examine all options before we made this decision," Harris said.
The schools' other buses could not cover all the company's routes, district spokesman Michael Straughter said.
"Because of the way the routing system is set up, you've got charter school students that are picked up all over the place and sent all over the place. We just would not have the capacity to cover that," he said.
Fulwider said First Student had notified the district it could provide drivers who had cleared background checks to handle the routes today.
The district plans to review its contracts but will continue working with First Student in the near future, he said.
Driver pulled over
Police said when they pulled over a bus driven by Lawrence Battle, 53, of Violet Township, on Tuesday, they found a syringe partially filled with a substance that tested positive for cocaine. Battle, a First Student employee, was on his way to a private school to pick up pupils after classes when he was pulled over.
Battle had eight previous traffic convictions, including three -- from 1980, 1981 and 1988 -- for operating a vehicle under the influence, according to Ohio Department of Public Safety records.
The district reviews the records of drivers who are employed through private companies but looks back only three years, said Eric Pinkett, the schools' transportation director. The district and First Student both conduct random drug and alcohol screening on drivers, and Battle was tested and passed Oct. 31, he said.
Battle was being held on bond in the county jail.

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