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School Bus Drivers to Be Given Background Checks Before Receiving Licenses


SACRAMENTO — The California Highway Patrol, prompted by mounting concern over the safety of children who ride to school on buses, announced last week that the agency will tighten the application process for school bus drivers to obtain licenses.

Robert Rengstorff, chief of enforcement for the CHP, told the Assembly Transportation Committee Thursday that beginning June 1, 180-day temporary licenses will no longer be issued to drivers employed by school districts and private school bus companies.

Under the CHP plan, developed during the past few weeks, applicants for permits to drive school buses will be licensed only after fingerprint and background checks are completed. Currently, drivers who pass state tests are given temporary six-month permits to allow them to drive while the checks are being completed.

Rengstorff said authorities are targeting school bus drivers because "there just seems to have been numerous instances where contractor-employed applicants have been involved in serious bus incidents."

In recent incidents two bus drivers employed by Laidlaw Transit, the nation's largest private school bus contractor, have been arrested on suspicion of driving school buses while drunk. A third Laidlaw driver was arrested for carrying a loaded gun in his bus. Laidlaw serves the Long Beach Unified School District.

The committee's chairman, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), said he called the hearing to examine the procedures used by Laidlaw, other bus companies, school districts and state agencies.

"There's something seriously out of whack" in the system, Katz said. He cited the recently discovered criminal backgrounds of some school bus drivers, allegedly faulty procedures of state authorities in licensing drivers and the poor accident record of private school bus operators.

Laidlaw officials defended their practices, saying the company has instituted a comprehensive driver safety program.

But Katz said that based on CHP figures the accident rate for all private school bus contractors is significantly higher than the rate for drivers employed directly by school districts. The Los Angeles school district employs 1,300 drivers, and the remaining 1,500 who transport the district's students work for private firms, school officials said.

A specific breakdown of the accident rate for Los Angeles schools was not available.

According to 1987-88 school year figures for the entire state released by Katz's office, drivers employed directly by school districts were involved in nearly seven accidents per million miles compared to almost 11 accidents per million miles for private bus companies. A spokesman for Katz said those figures--the most recent available--were for buses that carry 20 passengers or more.

Spike Helmick, deputy CHP commissioner, confirmed the disparity, suggesting that one reason is that drivers for school districts tend to keep their jobs longer than do drivers for private contractors.

Complaints about school bus drivers have risen in recent months, following the arrests of two Laidlaw Transit employees accused of driving buses while drunk--one in the San Fernando Valley and the other in San Diego. Laidlaw is paid about $20 million a year by the Los Angeles Unified School District and is its largest bus contractor, school officials said.

In January, a Laidlaw driver, Harold Keith Lone, was arrested in Encino as he prepared to pick up students at Lanai Elementary School. A breath test showed Lone had a blood-alcohol level of 0.27%, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08%. Authorities have said that Lone obtained his job by using an alias to hide a lengthy criminal record, including five drunk driving convictions.

Earlier this month, a school bus driver transporting Clairemont High School students in San Diego was charged with drunk driving after his bus rear-ended a pickup truck, injuring three people, according to the CHP.

Moreover, Katz said he was also concerned about another San Diego case in which Laidlaw driver Victor H. Gomez in 1987 allegedly kidnaped a 5-year-old girl from a school bus and molested her. A civil lawsuit filed by the child against Laidlaw is pending. San Diego police said Gomez remains a fugitive.

During Thursday's hearing, Katz expressed shock that Gomez still has a valid license to drive a school bus. Bill Gengler, a spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles, confirmed that his agency "had not suspended or revoked" Gomez's license because "we had no information from law enforcement or other sources that would allow us to act."

Katz complained about the DMV's "business-as-usual approach" in such cases.

He also said that Laidlaw and other private bus contractors "are not acknowledging their responsibility to develop a better procedure of screening the drivers."

Dave Daley, vice president of operations for Laidlaw Transit's Van Nuys-based operation, acknowledged that when he joined the office "substantial improvements were needed."

Laidlaw has improved its checking of applicant references and training since Katz's committee had a similar hearing in 1988, Daley said. "We feel our procedures have been corrected in a responsive manner," he said.

Daley described the latest arrests of drivers as "isolated" but said they pointed up the need to improve staff training to detect drug and alcohol abuse among drivers.

In an attempt to discourage problems, Laidlaw officials asked the committee to adopt criminal sanctions against drivers who lie about their background on employment applications, including a mandatory six-month jail term and a $10,000 fine for violations.

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