Live 5 Investigates: Who’s Driving the School Bus?

Our attempt to vet drivers didn’t get very far.

VIDEO: Who’s Driving the School Bus?

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - An attempt to confirm school bus drivers in the Lowcountry are being properly screened and backgrounded came to a halt after Live 5 asked Charleston County Schools and its bus contractor for a list of people who are driving CCSD students.

CCSD said it doesn’t have a list of the drivers and Durham School Services won’t release their names.

When we first requested detailed information about school bus drivers from CCSD last year under the Freedom of Information Act, we received a response from the district’s FOIA email that they could not fulfill our request.

“CCSD has not the requested list of driver names from Durham and is not in possession of the list of Durham driver names. Therefore, CCSD cannot respond to your request because Durham’s list of drivers would not meet the legal definition of a CCSD public record. CCSD didn’t prepare the list, doesn’t own the list, doesn’t use the list, and doesn’t retain or possess the list. " the email said.

CCSD has an $18.6 million contract with Durham to provide daily transportation for at least 22,000 students on more than 360 buses. They work on about 1,400 daily routes.

That contract allows the school district to view Durham driver files and ask for a list of drivers at any time, said CCSD Director of Communications and Technology Andy Pruitt.

But even if they did ask Durham for a full list of bus drivers, Pruitt said it wouldn’t be appropriate to give us that list since the drivers are not CCSD employees.

Pruitt said the district interacts with Durham drivers daily, as do people like principals at CCSD schools. He said they have training for the drivers sometimes. But they don’t have a list of their names because they aren’t considered school district employees.

We then asked Durham for a list of our local drivers’ names. The company’s Director of Communication Edward Flavin said in an email, “To ensure the confidentiality and privacy of our employees, it is our policy not to share personal information of our employees with the public.”

State Senator Sandy Senn was surprised when we told her that Durham wouldn’t give us a list of bus drivers and that CCSD doesn’t have a list handy.

“The correct answer to your questions about who’s driving our children should have been – ‘I’ll get you that information,’” Senn said.

Senn, who is also a Charleston attorney with a background in civil and governmental defense law, said she could understand why Durham wants to protect employee privacy. But, she added, she doesn’t think a request for names is overly intrusive.

“Once [CCSD] signed a contract with a group, that group has become quasi-governmental. And when they’re quasi-governmental, they have to comply with the FOIA. There are constraints, but they still have to comply.”

Senn said her son, a CCSD student, loves his bus driver. “I think they we’ll find the vast majority of them to be absolutely wonderful, wonderful people. But you don’t ever keep things shrouded in secrecy. That makes people concerned where maybe there shouldn’t be a concern.”

A parent’s concern

Johns Island mother Erica Cokley has been fighting for years to change her child’s bus stop so that it wouldn’t be on such a busy road, Main Road at McClernon Trace. The area is right off Savannah Highway.

“I don’t think the infrastructure here was made for a school bus stop setting. They built 150 homes back here. There are so many more cars in and out,” she explained. “When the bus stops, the stop sign goes out, and cars are passing the school bus stop sign.”

She said her repeated complaints to the school district and to Durham have resulted in no response and no change, Cokley said. She no longer allows her son to ride the bus and makes alternate transportation plans for him.

When we talked to her about our bus driver request being denied, Cokley was concerned. “If the safety of our children is our number one priority, why aren’t we allowed to ask these questions? Why don’t we know who’s driving our children around? Why don’t you know where our tax dollars are going? Why don’t we know who’s taking our kids?”

She suggested parents introduce themselves to their kids’ bus drivers in order to know their name or route information.

S.C. bus driver requirements

South Carolina law requires bus drivers, and anyone else who serves “in any capacity in a public school,” to undergo a name-based South Carolina criminal record search and a National Sex Offender Registry check.

The SLED check, as the background search is sometimes called, would capture South Carolina criminal records. But it is not a national background check.

Those checks are required upon hire, but CCSD told us state does not require districts to perform updated background checks or sex offender checks on employees. Pruitt says they do perform those checks again if an employee changes his or her position.

However, Durham is responsible for handling all background checks and motor vehicle record checks for bus drivers as part of its contract with CCSD. The document specifies that, "It is is the Contractor’s responsibility to assure that all such laws and regulations are known and complied with.”

CCSD spokesperson Andy Pruitt said the school district follows up on Durham’s compliance through an independent third-party auditor.

That auditor, he said, receives a full list of drivers annually and runs spot checks on a sample of them. The audit findings must also be provided to the state, Pruitt said.

Durham’s bus drivers

Durham School Services spokesperson Edward Flavin told us, “Our background checks are performed pursuant to federal, state and contractual regulations/requirements. These checks include, but are not limited to, a Social Security Number (SSN) trace, and criminal record and national sex offender searches that go back at a minimum of 10 years. We partner with Hireright to conduct these background checks. The SSN trace includes a search for state and municipality court records.”

He said, after hire, the company also uses a continuous monitoring system called Samba Safety that provides them notifications if it detects changes to a driver’s motor vehicle record.

Live 5 has covered numerous Durham bus stories dating back to 2008. Parents have called with concerns about driver shortages, overcrowding, kids dropped off at the wrong stops, and parents worried about unsafe stops. In recent years, CCSD’s school board started receiving regular updates about late buses. We found out students missed more than 11,500 hours of class time in one year. The number one reason was due to traffic.

Dorchester District 2 stopped contracting with Durham in 2015 in order to take over transportation operations itself and save money. Beaufort County Schools made a similar move when their Durham contract was going to cost an additional million dollars, the district’s spokesperson told us.

In 2018, the Charleston County School District was withholding part of its payment to Durham School Services after officials said the contractor was not meeting the standard.

Recently, CCSD posted a solicitation for bids and is looking to hire another bus contractor, a decision Durham appealed last Friday.

The State Department of Education’s role

The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) is responsible for issuing certifications to all school bus drivers, including those who work for a contractor such as Durham.

SCDE provided us a list of more than 1,100 certified local school bus drivers in the Lowcountry, but they could not confirm which of those people are currently working as a driver for a district or for Durham.

According to a flyer provided by SCDE’s Office of Transportation, “Drivers must obtain a South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) School Bus Driver’s Certificate to be eligible to drive any bus owned or leased by the state, a school district, or a private company for the purpose of transporting public school students to or from school or school related activities.”

There are many other requirements of bus drivers, including:

  • No more than four points against their current driving record and no license suspensions for moving violations in the past twelve months.
  • Completion of classroom instruction with SCDE
  • Obtain a federal Department of Transportation medical certification
  • Obtain the proper learner’s permit and driver’s license, which depends on the type of bus the driver will be operating.
  • Obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) with passenger transport (P) And school bus (S) endorsements are required unless they are only operating a non-commercial motor vehicle such as an activity bus.
  • Ability to pass a pre-employment drug screen as required by federal regulations.
  • Completion a behind-the-wheel training with SCDE.

According to the SCDE, “For continued certification, a driver must have no more than four points against her/his current driving record; no more than four points against her/his driving record in the past twelve months; and no license suspensions for moving violations in the past twelve months,"

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