Investigators: Minnesota schools failing to test bus drivers for alcohol, drugs

- A Fox 9 Investigation found some Minnesota school districts are failing to meet even the most basic requirements when testing school bus drivers for the use of alcohol and drugs.

Recent cases show why the random checks are so important. In 2014, a school bus crashed into some trees near Winona, Minn. and the driver blamed the kids on board for distracting him.

In an audio recorded interview, the driver told police: "Just got sucked off the road. I looked up at the mirror, told the kids to sit down and by the time I looked back down, it was too late already."

But a sheriff's deputy noticed the driver struggled to keep his balance, his eyes were watery, and his breath smelled of alcohol. The bus driver told a deputy he only had two glasses of wine but he blew a .127 on a preliminary breath test.

In Minnesota, it’s illegal to drive a school bus with any alcohol in the driver's system.

A similar incident happened a few years back in Eagan. A school bus went off the road and rammed into a parked motor home. The driver blew a .105 and told police he had a few drinks the night before.

“In this day and age this shouldn’t be happening,” said Joe Werden whose daughter was on the bus. "As I'm pulling up I can see the bus driver, they got him out doing a sobriety test. And I'm like really, a sobriety test at two in the afternoon and you're driving kids."

No one was hurt in either case, but they highlight why school bus drivers are required to undergo random drug and alcohol testing throughout the year. It's supposed to act as a deterrent for the estimated five percent of drivers who may have a substance abuse problem.

RECORDS DESCRIBE MAJOR PROBLEMS IN BLOOMINGTON DISTRICT

An inspection this school year by the State Patrol found ”alarming" deficiencies in the Bloomington school district's testing program. It hired eight drivers before giving them federally mandated pre-employment drug and alcohol tests.

They drove for 3 months until anyone realized they had never been screened. No one checked to see if they had failed a drug or alcohol test at a previous employer, which the law mandates.

Bloomington also failed to test any of its drivers during the entire third quarter of 2015. The law requires random testing throughout the year.

When Bloomington did test, records show it was doing so on a somewhat predictable schedule, a serious flaw.

"It needs to be unannounced and reasonably spread out throughout the quarter so the drivers shouldn't know when it's coming," said Lt. Brian Reu, from the Minnesota State Patrol.

In December, a Bloomington driver was given a random test after dropping off elementary students in the morning.  The results showed an alcohol level of .027. That driver was charged with a DWI.

“There should be people losing their jobs for that," said Kerry Pearson. "I lost my son to a drunk driver in November and I'm raising his 5-year-old daughter who takes the Bloomington bus to and from school every day."

No one with the Bloomington school district would go on camera to answer questions about its testing program. But in a prepared statement they said, "We corrected the issues with the implementation of new procedures to ensure our practices are aligned with state and federal statutes."

OTHER DISTRICTS WITH TROUBLES

A 2014 inspection in Minneapolis found some drivers who were picked for random testing were allowed to go on their morning routes before having to provide a urine sample. That left a four to six hour gap for them to potentially find a way to cheat.

"You hear about the Whizzinator, other devices. Somebody might go talk to somebody else, ‘hey can you give me a sample’, and try and get that into the testing site and provide that sample for them," said Reu.

Last year, inspectors discovered the Bagley School District, in northwest Minnesota, was giving drivers advance notice of when tests were coming. Both Minneapolis and Bagley said they've corrected the problems.

School districts and their transportation companies don't have to make public how often school bus drivers fail a drug or alcohol test. In fact, they don't even have to alert law enforcement when a driver tests positive.

The Fox 9 Investigators surveyed 25 school districts and asked if any had drivers fail a drug or alcohol test in the past three years. Six responded by saying yes; three had a driver test positive for marijuana, one for cocaine, two for alcohol. And one for an unspecified drug.

Some of those drivers were fired immediately. Others were put through a substance abuse program and returned to work, which is allowed by law as long as they stay clean.


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