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I-Team investigation uncovers issues with Wake County school bus drivers

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A third of Wake County school bus drivers have criminal records, some for minor offenses, but others more serious.

How much do you trust the people driving your children to and from school?

How much do you know about them? Do you know their names? Have you ever thought to check their background? Have they been in trouble with the law? Do they have a criminal record? Past moving violations? The answer is "Yes" for about a third of Wake County's nearly 800 school bus drivers.

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The ABC11 I-Team ran background checks on every driver in the state's largest school district and found hundreds of charges and associated convictions that ran the gamut from simple moving violations to speeding in a school zone to shoplifting.

"I think we need to be more careful with the people we're hiring to drive the school busses," said Raleigh mother Rebekah Ryan after seeing the list of drivers and charges. "People deserve a second chance for things, always, but I definitely want to know if someone I'm trusting to drive children - my children - I'd expect them to have a pretty clean record."

Ryan wasn't alone in wanting more from school bus drivers.

"I believe there are enough people with clean records that probably are looking for jobs," said Raleigh parent Joy Stroud. Her expectations? "That they would have a routine background check and have a clean record to work with our children."

Click here for a complete list of state requirements to become a certified school bus driver (.pdf)

"It's hard to have a completely clean record, I would think," allowed Jennifer Snell, from a table outside Marbles Children Museum in Raleigh. Snell is from Johnston County but weighed in as a mother whose children take the bus to school.

Benefit of the doubt or not, as she looked over a list of charges for Wake school bus drivers that includes charges of shoplifting, reckless driving and unlawfully passing a public vehicle, Snell said slowly, "A lot of these, I don't think are good citizens. So I'm not definitely having them drive a school bus."

Good citizenship is something the Wake County Public School System addresses on the first page of its School Bus Driver Manual.

"As a model for your passengers and a representative of Wake County Public School System," writes Senior Director of Transportation Robert Snidemiller, "your conduct and appearance should contribute to safety, respect, and pleasant relations with your passengers, parents, school administrators, and other motorists at all times."

But beyond good citizenship, many parents were surprised by other findings, including one that involves a specific qualification for the job: the CDL (Commercial Driver's License). We found dozens of school bus drivers who -- at the time of one conviction or another -- were listed in court documents as not having it.

"That seems like a big red flag to me," said Raleigh dad Brian Shepherd. "That seems like a no brainer that you should have some sort of licensure that says you can drive a vehicle that big."

"That should be something taken care of before they even start the job," Stroud agreed.

In fact, state law requires school bus drivers to have a CDL.

Click here for a list of all requirements to become a licensed school bus driver in Wake County

We presented our data to the school system and haven't gotten a response.

For more than a week, the I-Team requested a sit-down interview with a WCPSS transportation official. At the time of our report, we hadn't been allowed to talk to any district official other than a spokesperson for the school system.

More than a week ago, spokesperson Lisa Luten suggested via email that a previous I-Team report in 2009 had left a cynical taste in the mouths of school officials.

WATCH: 2009 I-Team investigation into Wake school bus drivers
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2009 I-Team investigation into Wake school bus drivers

That report offered a similar analysis of Wake school bus drivers and found even more unsavory backgrounds than this review. In its wake, the WCPSS made changes to its hiring and monitoring practices.

In a follow up report in early 2010, the school system thanks the I-Team for helping improve the quality of Wake County school bus drivers.

WATCH: 2010 I-Team follow-up report
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2010 I-Team follow-up report.

Previously, the district relied on drivers to self-report any citations or convictions they received after being hired. After the report, the district put in place an automated system to check for "hits."

The I-Team is working to find out how many hits have been recorded since the system was put in place. School district policy still requires drivers to self-report; however, the I-Team is also digging to uncover what percentage of drivers haven't self-reported citations.

Parents told ABC11 they expect the schools system to go farther. Some call for annual background checks others suggest the school system solicit law enforcement agencies to report hits to the district in real time. Most parents said they don't trust drivers to incriminate themselves, especially if they could lose their jobs as a result.

"I think it needs to be reported once someone gets a ticket or gets a charge," Snell said. "It needs to be reported from the agency to the school district, not self-reported. Obviously you can't trust them."

"I expect the school system will have done whatever needs to be done to ensure that's going to be a safe environment," Shepherd said. "And if that includes reviewing each driver's criminal history then I think that would be my expectation."

"I can understand it might be hard to find good candidates for school bus drivers but they need to pay them more or do something in order to get a better candidate than that," said Kelsey Maren, looking at list of drivers with multiple convictions.

Ryan agreed.

"I would think the people that are hiring them should be more careful with who they hire because people are trusting them to fully vet people that are driving our children," she said.

The I-Team has a standing request in with the school system for an interview on this topic and additional requests in for more information.

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