Students safe on buses, officials say - Tucson Local Media: Import

Students safe on buses, officials say

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Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005 12:00 am

March 9, 2005 - After a school bus driver received a DUI charge while driving a bus full of students, local officials want to reassure the public that their children are safe on district buses.

"This kind of situation is a horrible and terrifying situation for anyone involved," said Todd Jaeger, associate superintendent and general counsel for Amphitheater Public Schools. "However, this type of thing is so rare."

The situation Jaeger is referring to is that of a substitute school bus driver facing 37 counts of endangerment and one count of DUI drug charges for an incident that occurred on Feb. 18. Jacqueline Francine Shortt, 41, of the 2500 block of West Tenbrook Way, was arrested and charged with DUI after she repeatedly backed up and hit a wall outside a gated community in Oro Valley, said Becky Mendez, spokeswoman for Oro Valley Police Department.

According to a police report, the students from Copper Creek Elementary School who left the bus after Shortt allegedly struck a decorative wall three times at the Villages of La Cañada, 1300 block of West Congressional Way, said she was "acting erratically and yelling."

An officer who was in the area responding to a different call observed that Shortt's speech was mumbled and her walk was swayed and unsteady, according to the police report.

Shortt was arrested and taken to the Oro Valley Police Department. The Pima County Justice Court is waiting to hear back from the grand jury to see if there is enough evidence to continue with the charges against Shortt. If so, she will be arraigned, according to a Justice Court clerk.

When asked to share her recollection of what happened, Shortt declined comment, stating that what happened was "none of their business."

Given the "terrifying" nature of Shortt's crash, Jaeger wants to make it well known that her actions were unacceptable and will be dealt with accordingly.

"She is on unpaid leave," Jaeger said.

Amphi operates more than 130 buses and covers 90 routes daily, said Marc Lappitt, director of transportation for the district.

According to the district's Web Site, during the 2001-02 school year, Amphi bus drivers drove more than 1.7 million miles and picked up more than 1.2 million students. That year, they had an accident rate of .00002 accidents per mile traveled.

It's numbers like that, along with rigorous testing standards, that make Lappitt and Jaeger confident that Amphi's school bus drivers are qualified to be behind the wheel.

"The system that is in place works," Jaeger said. "It works because we have seen it work."

It is important for people to feel safe and confident about school bus drivers, Jaeger said, adding that they can because of the application and background-check process mandated by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

When applicants want to be considered for school bus driving positions, they must first meet certain requirements, said Officer Ken Chruscinski, with the commercial vehicle division of DPS.

Along with the standard application requesting information on past criminal history and the number of points, if any, on their driving records, applicants must also submit to drug and alcohol screening, and first-aid and CPR training. Applicants also must obtain fingerprint clearance and pass a physical examination. An agility test will also be required in the coming months, testing, for example, how quickly applicants can exit a bus from the driver's seat, Chruscinski said.

The process that occurs before hiring is a "pretty long and drawn out" one, Chruscinski added, quickly reminding anyone interested that not just any person from off the street can get hired as a school bus driver.

Along with going through background checks, applicants are required by the state to undergo at least 20 hours of behind-the-wheel training and be able to pass a standardized operations test.

After being hired, drivers must undergo random state-mandated drug and alcohol tests at least once every two years. In the case of Jacqueline Shortt, and of any other driver involved in an accident, the driver must submit to immediate drug and alcohol screening, Chruscinski said.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety put a suspension on Shortt's driving certification, meaning that she can not operate a school bus within the state of Arizona, Chruscinski said.

Depending on the outcome of the charges, Shortt's commercial driver's license may be revoked, he said.

While school bus accidents may be rare, they are not uncommon. In December 2004, a Vail School District bus driver was charged with four counts of aggravated DUI and five counts of endangerment after she was arrested for drunk driving.

In that case, a student called his mother from the school bus and told her that the driver, 39-year-old Patrice Long, smelled like alcohol and had slurred speech.

In 2002, a Marana Unified School District bus driver, Diana Lynn Teal, was sentenced to 180 days in jail and five years on intense probation, after she admitted to drinking beers at home before starting her afternoon bus-driving shift.

Dan Powers, director of transportation for the Marana school district, said he has more than 104 buses on daily routes. Each of the transportation department's 100-plus employees, he said, are properly trained and randomly tested for drugs and alcohol.

"Every district has the same procedures," Powers said.

To be bus drivers in the Marana school district, employees must have had no DUI convictions within the past three years, and they must undergo at least 40 to 50 hours of classroom training and 20 to 24 hours of behind-the-wheel training.

To supplement the training, Powers has started taking applicants on test drives in a van and giving them a "basic evaluation of their driving skills," he said.

And with district buses traveling more than 11,132 miles per day, officials agree it never hurts to be cautious.

"A school bus is the safest mode of transportation worldwide for school use," said Lewis Carloss, school bus transportation supervisor for Citizen Auto Stage, a contracted school bus provider for the Catalina Foothills School District.

Citizen Auto Stage has provided the Catalina Foothills School District with school buses since 1979, Carloss said, and it is responsible for providing safe transportation for the students.

All three districts said the certification process, expectations and qualification requirements for substitute drivers are the same as for permanent drivers. Carloss said he likes to keep his substitute drivers in constant circulation to ensure that they are at the top of their game.

Jaeger did not know how long Shortt had been a substitute driver for the route she was driving the day of the DUI arrest, but he did say the district is doing as much as the state will allow in the area of training and drug and alcohol screenings.

"You can't drug test someone everyday," Jaeger said. "It is intrusive and expensive for the district. Jaeger added that it's important to consider what else could be done to make sure incidents like that with Shortt do not occur.

The Oro Valley Police Department will not release the name of the drug Shortt is suspected of having been under the influence.

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