I-Team investigates school bus drivers

WAKE COUNTY We focused our investigation on the state's largest school system and conducted a criminal background check of 859 Wake County school bus drivers. The school system and the state have very specific qualifications for bus drivers to be hired and to keep their job.

Our investigation found criminal records the school system is very concerned about.

Since last March, Courtney Cooley has been driving children to and from Wendell Middle School and Knightdale High School. But, the I-Team discovered troubling charges on his criminal record.

In 2006, he was charged with driving while impaired, reckless driving, and speeding. Police said he was going 110 miles an hour in a 55 zone.

"I have nothing to say," Cooley told I-Team reporter Steve Daniels when we asked him about the charges.

When we started digging deeper at the courthouse, we discovered a document from the Highway Patrol reporting Cooley ran off the road and flipped his vehicle over several times and that he had a strong odor of alcohol.

Court records also show the case was dismissed.

When we started asking questions, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Cooley's case was dismissed by mistake and he's reopening it.

Cooley is facing the same charges again.

"We stumbled and fell and didn't get this case properly prosecuted in a timely manner and I hope to do that. The school system will have to evaluate the facts and decide what they think is appropriate but you know clearly this is a court system mistake," Willoughby said.

Don Haydon is the man in charge of transportation at the school district. He couldn't talk about Cooley because it's a pending legal matter.

"I'm shocked to see this and very appreciative of you bringing this to our attention, and we need to look into this immediately, and we've already set the wheels in motion doing that, to look into specific incidences that you've pointed out, to find out what's involved here and what action with regard to these specific drivers that you mention is appropriate and that action will be taken," he said.

The I-Team ran a criminal background check on 859 Wake County school bus drivers using a computer database. Then we conducted an analysis. More than 50 percent of all drivers had a hit on their record.

Their names appeared in red on a spreadsheet meaning they have something as minor as a moving violation or as major as a felony.

"If they're a good driver safe driver, responsible driver, should these kinds of things matter?" Daniels asked Haydon.

"I think so. I think we have to look at the total record and the total situation with that individual," he responded.

Some of the criminal records are troubling. Five have faced convictions. Three drivers have been convicted of felonies in the past decade - two with assault with a deadly weapon. The school system says a person who's had a felony conviction in the previous ten years can be disqualified from employment.

"You know, your data is excellent. It's going to be a big help to us appreciate you bringing it to us," said Hayden.

"You want to make sure this is properly addressed?" Daniels asked.

"We want to make sure it's followed up on because there's potentially serious things that you're pointing out," he replied.

And, we found questionable driving records. Five drivers have had three speeding tickets in the past ten years. You'd think they'd know better, but two drivers have been charged with speeding in a school zone.

The Wake County school system says it won't hire anyone who has more than two tickets in ten years. Based on that, at least two drivers should not have been hired.

One driver has been given speeding tickets five times in the past nine years. Two of those since she was hired as a bus driver. Another driver who was hired in 2005 has been charged with speeding seven times since 1989. She even had her license revoked in 1991.

"Is that the kind of person who should be driving children?" Daniels asked Haydon.

"If the record is as you stated it, we have to investigate this and see what this is, and it sounds on the surface, no," he replied.

During our investigation we made another discovery about drivers who have gotten into trouble after they were hired.

"The state requires a background check to get the job but how about to keep the job?" Daniels asked.

"To my knowledge there's not a routine process for background checks," Haydon said.

"Should there be routine background checks?" asked Daniels.

"I don't, we'll consider that as a part of the review of our criteria and process," Haydon responded.

The school system says drivers are supposed to notify their supervisor when they get a ticket. For some infractions, drivers can lose their job. Both the DMV and the school system are supposed to notify each other after a driver comes forward reporting a moving violation.

"You're relying on someone to come to you and say I violated these regulations and I may lose my job as a result?" asked Daniels.

"If it doesn't get reported back to State Department of Motor Vehicle and so forth it's a part of their process and the licensing process," said Haydon.

Haydon points out there are more than 800 buses on the road in Wake County every day and the vast majority of drivers are fully qualified to be behind the wheel.

"Our bus drivers are very dedicated people and you know the situation where I hope that the rotten apple doesn't spoil the barrel, because they're a very concerned group of people, they're very dedicated to the job and I hope our parents realize that," he said.

"It seems they do have a tough job. You're dealing with a rowdy bus load full of kids and all the responsibility you have associated with that driving a very large school bus at the same time, it's a tough job," said Daniels.

"It is it's a demanding job, not a great deal of pay, and never-the-less, we gotta make sure that the folks that are driving children are the right people," said Haydon.

Haydon says the Wake County school system is now investigating what went wrong in checking the background of the drivers we mentioned. We also discovered other states do yearly background checks on drivers and do not rely on drivers to self-report after they've been ticketed of charged with a crime.

Wake County bus drivers transport 72,000 children every day.

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