Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dozens of school bus drivers with criminal convictions transport

Dozens of school bus drivers with criminal convictions transport children to class each day, many with the state's approval, a Gannett New Jersey investigation has found.

Offenses for the persons convicted range from manslaughter to drug distribution to theft.

Of the 35 drivers found by Gannett New Jersey, three have had their bus driving endorsements revoked by the state Department of Education after the Press forwarded its list to authorities.

None of the banned drivers worked in Middlesex, Monmouth or Ocean counties.

The three drivers include a man convicted of manslaughter and two women convicted of endangering the welfare of a child.

The gap in background checks for school bus employees is so wide that one man with two prior drug convictions was hired as a bus aide by a Keansburg company to transport Middletown students. State officials said they were never told about the hire, and, as a result, no background check was ever run.

The aide, Parrish L. Jones, is now serving a 10-year prison term for giving a near-fatal dose of methadone to a 15-year-old on a school bus in 2006.

Of the 32 remaining bus drivers whose permits were not terminated because of prior convictions, state officials said none had offenses that would warrant taking them off school buses. The convictions included simple assault, gambling, weapons possession and official misconduct, according to a review of state court records.

Still, state education officials said that those with serious offenses shouldn't have escaped detection and that measures are being taken to close the loopholes that let Jones and others get on a school bus.

"The safety and security of our children are DOE's highest priorities, which is why we do these background checks in the first place," said Kathryn Forsyth, Department of Education spokeswoman. "It is simply unacceptable to us to have anyone slip
through the cracks, and when we find that someone has, we move quickly to make sure they are disqualified and fired."

Gannett New Jersey also found that 148 convicts received school bus driver licenses after their convictions, but that their permits have since expired, according to a review of bus drivers and state criminal court records for the last 15 years.

The drivers worked for both private bus companies and school districts that operated their own bus service.

State education officials, who are required by law to keep certain criminals from driving school children, said that the three terminated bus drivers fell through the cracks because of changes in the state's fingerprinting system.

"In these instances, we are obligated to take action," said Carl Carabelli, manager of the criminal history review unit for the education department. "Disqualification notices went out on Aug. 21, which said they are disqualified (from school employment) and should be terminated, and we sent notices to MVC (Motor Vehicle Commission) to revoke their school bus endorsement."

School bus drivers are supposed to be fingerprinted and go through criminal background checks every two years, when they renew their bus driver's license. But those safeguards, designed to reassure parents, don't always work, said Dr. Alan Ross, founder of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, Connecticut.

Federal law prohibits individuals from driving a school bus who have been convicted of first- or second-degree crimes, such as murder and aggravated assault, and some third-degree theft offenses.

Middletown school bus aide Jones is a recent example of how a slip-up can cause a near death. Jones had two prior drug convictions in Monmouth County, but got a job as an aide for the Aberdeen-based Milu Bus Service.

Jones, 37, of Keansburg, was convicted of drug distribution in Monmouth County in 1992 and again in 1996. He was given a 364-day jail term in 1992 and a three-year prison sentence in 1996, according to public records.

Jones pleaded guilty to giving methadone a synthetic narcotic to a 15-year-old Middletown North High School student in October 2006. The boy nearly died from the overdose. Jones was sentenced last June to five to 10 years in prison.

Jones was hired for school employment despite his two prior drug convictions because his name was never submitted for a background check to the state by the bus company, Forsyth said. An education department audit revealed that the company also failed to submit other employees' names for background checks, she said.

"His name didn't go through the system. They were cited for noncompliance. They have to perform a corrective action plan," she said.

Education officials are putting together administrative procedures to fine any bus company that fails to submit workers names for background checks, Forsyth said.

"It is a shame that what happened in Middletown happened. I thank God the child was okay, it's one heck of an awakening for the township," said Maria Wheaton, parent of a student who graduated from Middletown North High School last year.

While Wheaton said she was satisfied with how the district handled the situation, she said she supports a bill introduced by state Sens. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, and Shirley Turner, D-Mercer.

The bill would require more frequent fingerprinting of all school employees and mandate that those fingerprints are kept on file. In June, it was approved by the Senate education committee and is waiting to be posted for a vote by the full Senate.

"That bill is a great idea, it should pass with flying colors," Wheaton said. "I think that any adult who works with school age children should definitely go through a thorough background check."

The three school bus drivers state officials said were disqualified are:

Cora Outlaw, 42, Newark, convicted of endangering the welfare of a child and sentenced to three years in prison in 1992. She was last approved for school employment in May 2007 in Essex County.

State education department officials said they initially found no disqualifying crimes on her record. Her endangerment conviction has since been verified, disqualifying her from driving a school bus.

Marba L. Morris, 50, Teaneck, was convicted of endangering the welfare of a child and placed on two years' probation 1999. She was last approved for school employment in 2005 in Bergen County.

Bobby G. Allen, 54, of Vineland, convicted of manslaughter in 1992, was sentenced to 270 days in jail and four years' probation. He was approved for school employment in August 2006 in Vineland. Education department officials said the conviction wasn't on his record. After a new review of records, he was disqualified from school employment.

None of the drivers could be reached for comment.

The drivers can challenge the action by filing an administrative appeal with the department within 30 days, said Carabelli, of the education department's enforcement bureau. None has filed an appeal as of Thursday, Sept. 11.

How did those three drivers and others make it through the system?

In several cases, individuals uncovered by Gannett New Jersey slipped through the criminal background safety net because their fingerprints weren't kept on file by the state Bureau of Identification, Carabelli said.

In 12 other cases reviewed, the crimes weren't considered by the department to be disqualifying offense at the time they were convicted, Carabelli said.

All first- and second-degree offenses, such as homicides and major drug crimes, are disqualifying. A theft charge depends on the severity and the value of what was taken, Carabelli said. Some third-degree theft offenses also are considered disqualifying offenses, he said.

State officials determined that 10 drivers on the Gannett New Jersey's list would keep their license because the offenses they were convicted of weren't disqualifying under the law. They included weapons possession, interfering with custody of a child and witness tampering.

Four drivers on the list were convicted of lower offenses, such as disorderly persons and drug possession, which were not considered a disqualification at that time of arrest. But such offenses would bar them from obtaining a school bus driver's license now, Carabelli said.

The state criminal history review unit handles 70,000 background checks a year for all school employees and disqualifies an average of about 1 percent, Carabelli said. There are 25,000 school bus drivers authorized to drive students in the state, he said.

One problem identifying drivers with records is that until February 2003, the state Bureau of Identification didn't retain the physical fingerprints from background checks, said Forsyth, the spokeswoman for the education department.

"If they committed a crime, we didn't know unless we found out anecdotally or through the newspapers or if the police or prosecutor let us know a crime was committed," Forsyth said.

That database is "much more complete" and state education officials will know immediately if a bus driver or school employee is convicted or has a record, she said.

Legislation in the state Senate would require all school employees and applicants to undergo fingerprinting and criminal background checks every two years.

The bill, S110, also would require the education department and state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which tracks individual wage data, to compare databases to determine if a school employee has not undergone a criminal background check, or has been disqualified yet still works with students.

"The (education) department not only strongly supports this bill, we helped write it," Forsyth said. "As the people who administer the system, we knew where the problems were and what had to be addressed legislatively. We think this bill will significantly tighten the safety net."

"It expands our ability to make sure people don't fall through the cracks," Forsyth said. "All these pieces are filling holes."

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