Knox County Schools Toughens Bus Driver Background Checks
Tennessee’s Knox County Schools district has struggled with bus driver shortages over the past year following the implementation of tougher background check standards. Per a report from the Knoxville News Sentinel, the current shortage heading into the 2017/18 school year is less dire than it was last year in the eyes of administrators. The district is still reportedly having some trouble covering all the bus routes for the 2017-18 school year.
The Chief Operating Office of Knox County Schools told the News Sentinel that filling bus routes has never been easy but stated that things have gotten a lot harder since the 2016-17 school year. The district implemented a new set of screening standards for drivers during the school year with the stated goal of improving safety. Every applicant must now go through a thorough check of their criminal history and driving record. If either check returns red flags, reports explain, decision-makers for the district’s busing contracts review the offenses and decide whether to disqualify the driver from employment consideration. Last year, the district had around 100 applicants for school busing jobs; they had to disqualify roughly 50 of them based on background check findings.
The stricter background check policies are in place to keep kids safe, administrators claim, noting that they can be traced back to a tragedy at Knox County Schools in December 2014. That month, a bus carrying students from Knoxville’s Sunnyview Primary School was involved in a crash that killed two students and a teacher’s aide. The legal fault for the accident fell on the driver, who was texting while driving. The News Sentinel report notes that the driver was communicating with a prostitute about drugs at the time of the deadly school bus crash.
The accident prompted state legislators to pass a law that created tougher penalties for school bus drivers who text or otherwise use their phones while on the job, reports note. Those tougher penalties include a mandatory month-long jail sentence and a $1,000 fine. Individuals who text while driving school buses are also banned for life from driving school buses in the state of Tennessee.
Despite the law and Knox County Schools’ heightened background check standards, the district hasn’t been able to stamp out texting while driving entirely, reports claim. In a two-month span earlier this year, four of the district’s school bus drivers were arrested for using electronic devices while working. The arrests left the district’s busing contractors scrambling to cover routes with the owner of at least one of the companies having to step in and cover routes himself.
The district claims that bus driver numbers are up from where they were at the start of the school year last year and that a combination of higher standards and higher wages for bus drivers is leading to more qualified applicant pools.