News 13 Investigates: School bus drivers' pasts

News 13 did background checks through the court system on school bus drivers in Haywood, Buncombe, and Henderson counties. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

In fall 2016, two school bus drivers in Western North Carolina were arrested.

Those arrests prompted a monthslong investigation by News 13 into local school districts' hiring policies and background checks for drivers.

Two arrests in two weeks

On Nov. 1, 2016, Waynesville Middle School teacher and school bus driver Forrest Hall was arrested.

Hall faced charges of operating a school bus after consuming alcohol and two counts of consuming alcohol in an unauthorized premises.

The report from Waynesville police said at 6:20 a.m., before his morning route, Hall was on his bus with the engine running when school administrators requested an alcohol breath test. Investigators said it came back three times the legal limit.

The report also said officers found empty alcohol cans in Hall's classroom.

Just last week, he pleaded guilty to two of the three charges he was facing. Hall is no longer employed by Haywood County Schools.

Just a few weeks earlier, in Cherokee County, part-time driver Harold Herbst was arrested for driving a school bus while impaired and reckless driving to endanger.

Investigators said there were students on the bus when Herbst got stuck trying to turn it around and called for help.

Call for change

Ellen Pitt is an advocate for safe driving through the Western North Carolina Regional DWI Task Force.

"Safety is at the top of the list. If you can't keep the kids safe you really can't do much else," said Pitt.

Pitt said these cases show that school systems could do more to make sure the people driving children are responsible.

"When you're driving a school bus with all those children on it and all those lives are in your care, you really want someone that has good judgement, that's reasonable," said Pitt.

She questions whether schools should require more random drug and alcohol tests and wonders if background checks should go back farther than the standard seven years.

News 13 completes background checks

News 13's investigative team spent months doing its own research.

The team requested a list of school bus drivers in Haywood, Buncombe and Henderson counties, then looked up each one's criminal history.

Haywood County

In Haywood County, 12 out of 81 drivers had traffic violations in the last seven years.

There were also more serious convictions like DWI, reckless driving to endanger and intoxicated and disruptive. But, those charges were more than a decade ago.

"We're going to take those all on a case-by-case basis, and it really just depends," Haywood County Schools transportation director Todd Trantham said. "We're going to have to look at the circumstances, what kind of conviction that was and what kind of job we're hiring them for."

Trantham said every bus driver must go through training to get a commercial drivers license, or CDL. He said the school district also performs random drug tests on 30 percent of the drivers and alcohol tests on 10 percent of drivers. It also does a criminal background check on every employee.

"The safety of our children comes first, and everything is a red flag,"Haywood County associate superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte said. "Anything that is out of the ordinary is something we would pause."

Trantham said if drivers get arrested or get a ticket after they're hired, any serious charge would be automatically sent to the school system through the DMV. As for traffic violations, he said it depends on the driver's record and the exact charge.

"It's one of those things we have to handle on a case-by-case basis, but it's also one of those things that depends on what it is and how severe it is," said Trantham.

Buncombe County

A spokesperson for Buncombe County Schools said the district performs a comprehensive background check focusing on the last seven years, then takes any serious charges farther back. Any charges made after a driver is hired is handled on a case-by-case basis, the district said.

News 13 investigation found one current driver had three traffic convictions in the last seven years and another had four in two years.

Buncombe County Schools officials didn't want to do an interview, but sent this statement:

"We appreciate the hard work and dedication of the over 250 bus drivers who safely transport BCS students to and from school each and every day.

"We have a number of procedures that we rely on to screen all candidates before they are offered employment, and we have a system in place to alert us of any serious crimes committed by an employee after they are hired.

"Additionally, the NC DMV tracks and notifies us when a bus driver is charged with any offense related to the possession of their CDL. There are DMV safety standards in place that determine if a bus driver is qualified to hold a CDL. Additionally, the DMV checks all CDL holders every six months to see if they have incurred any serious moving violations in NC or outside of our state.

"BCS also conducts pre-employment, random, and post-accident drug and alcohol tests on bus drivers as another layer of safety.

"When notified of a charge, pursuant to board policy 7300 and NC General Statute 115C-332, we investigate and make a determination of continued employment on a case-by-case basis."

Henderson County

Some surprising convictions, like texting while driving, exceeding a safe speed and failure to secure a passenger under 16, were among the issues found when News 13 investigated bus drivers in Henderson County.

One driver had eight traffic convictions, some dating to the 1990s.

Another had two speeding convictions in the last seven years, combined with three others farther back, along with a DWI in 2002 and a reckless driving to endanger conviction in 2000.

Henderson County Schools also declined an on-camera interview, but sent this statement:

"Henderson County Public Schools employs school bus drivers in accordance with local Board policy and the Department of Motor Vehicles commercial drivers license (CDL) process.

"Prior to their employment as a school bus driver, an applicant must be eligible to obtain a CDL in North Carolina and pass a background check conducted by the school system. Any criminal and traffic violations are reviewed and addressed on a case-by-case basis.

"Additionally, the NC DMV notifies us when a bus driver is charged with an offense specifically related to the driver’s CDL. Any determination to grant or revoke a CDL is made by the NC DMV.

"HCPS also conducts pre-employment, random, and post-accident drug and alcohol tests on school bus drivers.

"Lastly, we investigate any current employees charged with a criminal offense and make a determination of continued employment on a case-by-case basis.

"Ultimately, we greatly appreciate the commitment and dedication of the men and women who travel more than 1 million miles annually, and who ensure the safe transport of our students each and every day."

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