Are school buses safe? Parents everywhere have been asking that question for years, and with the summer winding down and a new school year fast approaching, a fresh refrain of the query is sure to arise. According to a recent investigation by the USA Today Network New Jersey, the answer is “no”— especially for special needs students.
The article, published on NorthJersey.com, recounts recent legislative efforts to make buses safer in New Jersey and nationwide. Those efforts relate in part to a tragic bus accident that occurred on New Jersey’s Route 80 earlier this year. In that crash, Hudy Muldrow Sr., a 77-year-old bus driver, veered across three lanes of highway traffic to make an illegal U-turn using an “emergency vehicles only” turn-off. The bus was struck by oncoming traffic, killing two passengers—a 10-year-old student and a 51-year-old teacher—and injuring 40 others. Muldrow was driving the bus for a school field trip.
Muldrow’s record showed a long history of speeding violations (eight between 1975 and 2001) and license suspensions (14 between 1975 and 2017). In the ten years leading up to the crash, Muldrow also had three moving violations.
In the wake of the tragedy, lawmakers have proposed a range of legislative solutions to prevent similar fiascos in the future. These proposals focus primarily on oversight, regulation, and background checks for school bus drivers. Legislators want laws that would require more rigorous physical fitness tests for drivers, more in-depth driving record checks, and notification systems for license suspensions.
Per the USA Today Network investigation, lawmakers aren’t focusing on the part of the issue that critics say requires the most overhaul.
Special needs students, the NorthJersey.com article notes, are often bused out of their home districts to schools farther away that offer stronger special education programs. The home district is responsible for paying for this transportation, which usually means hiring a third-party busing company to get special needs students from point A to B. To save money, districts will often field bids from various companies and accept the lowest one. Districts can set up their third-party busing contracts so that the busing companies are responsible for background checks and the school districts have no liability.
These practices, combined with a nationwide shortage of bus drivers, means there isn’t much quality control at third-party bus companies. Some critics of the system suggest these third-party companies do not have the resources or interest to vet their drivers properly. Parents struggle to get information on who is driving their students to school since it isn’t clear where responsibility lies.
At a minimum, school bus driver background checks should include criminal history screenings, driving record checks, and professional license verifications. We offer all three of these checks at backgroundchecks.com. Other screenings, such as reference checks and ongoing criminal monitoring, are a smart education investment.
One federally proposed law would add ongoing driving record monitoring to the requirements for school bus drivers. The legislation, nicknamed “Miranda’s Law” after the little girl killed in the Route 80 bus crash, would create a “nationwide employer notification system” for bus drivers. The system would notify employers if a bus driver received a speeding ticket, was involved in an accident, had his or her license suspended, or recorded other red flags. The law defines school districts as the “employers” of bus drivers even when they are using third-party companies.
This system would be a step forward for school bus safety, but Miranda’s Law would only address driving record infractions. To create a system that is truly safe for every student—including special needs students—ongoing criminal monitoring needs to be part of the equation.