Broken Buses: Documents reveal disturbing failures

Jody Baker's children ride a school bus that failed both of its inspections.
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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Anderson - School buses in the city of Anderson carry thousands of students each day, and many of them also carry a secret.

Most of Anderson's school buses have been rejected by Indiana State Police for violating state standards.

Bus 87, for example, failed both of its state inspections this year - once for a brake problem and once for oil leaking onto the exhaust system.

And last week, the bus driver noticed another safety problem: the bus' speedometer stopped working.

But Jody Baker and other parents who have children riding bus 87 knew nothing of the violations.

"I had no idea, and it's scary," Baker said. "I just figured when my kids get on the bus, everything's OK."

This school year, two out of every three Anderson school buses were rejected or ordered out of service during their state inspections.

And in some Indiana school districts, the problem is even worse.

Documenting the Problem

WTHR obtained 2007-2008 school bus inspection reports for nearly every school district in Indiana to analyze their performance during state police inspections.

State law requires state police to inspect every Indiana school bus at least once a year. Older buses (more than ten years old) must be inspected twice.

The inspections are intense.

Thousands of buses are rejected for relatively minor problems such as holes in the seats, faded paint or trash left on the bus.

But many others are ordered "out of service" for serious safety violations involving brakes, tires, safety equipment and oil and fuel leaks.

Those buses cannot transport students until the problems are fixed. In many cases, repairs are made while state police inspectors are still on scene.

School districts and bus operators receive several months advance notice so they can prepare their buses for inspection. Inspectors expect the vehicles to be in excellent mechanical condition and ready for their annual check-up, according to State Police Sgt. Jim Jackson, who oversees ISP's bus inspection program in southern Indiana.

"I would hope for a minimum of an 80- to 85-percent pass rate on the first time through, and an out of service rate of less than five percent," Jackson said.

But the pass rates and "out of service" rates are much worse than that for dozens of school districts all around the state.

During this year's annual inspection, the initial pass rate in school districts such as Fort Wayne, Alexandria and North Daviess County were 53-percent, 26 percent and 4 percent respectively.

Inspection reports show the "out of service" rate was 20 percent for buses in Lawrence Township, 41 percent in Turkey Run, 59-percent in Vincennes and 86 percent for Tri-Cap Head Start buses in Petersburg.

State Police admit "Somebody missed it"

Overall, state police found nearly 5,000 violations this year on Indiana school buses. And 13 Investigates has discovered there are likely even more than that because state inspectors do not catch everything.  A few months ago, WTHR found a large hole in a rusted out exhaust pipe on Indianapolis Public Schools bus 5275 operated by First Student bus company.  State police admit they should have caught that during last summer's inspections.

"That didn't rot out from June until now," said ISP's Wayne Flick. "That tailpipe didn't happen in the last eight or nine months...somebody missed it."

During a February spot check at First Student, a state inspector also failed to notice bus 5187 had no front shocks -- until 13 Investigates brought it to his attention.

"Can somebody miss something? Yeah," said ISP First Sgt. Dave Bursten. "That can happen."

Even with some problems that are missed, state police find at least one in four buses statewide has violations on inspection day.

The big question is: Why?

Remember, annual bus inspections are announced months in advance to give school districts and bus operators plenty of time to prepare their vehicles. Yet state records show buses all across Indiana show up to inspection with broken horns, bad oil leaks and emergency exits that do not work properly. Last year, state police cited Fort Wayne bus 208 for, among other things, runny raccoon poop on a seat. The inspector wrote "Yuk!" on the inspection report.

In Anderson, 97 out of 150 buses had problems on inspection day, which concerns the school district's transportation director.

"I do worry because if it's not on the most important day that we have our buses 100-percent ready, what about the other 180 days of our school year?" said transportation director Nancy Farley.

Farley said the school district's failure rate is "unacceptable." She said she has been working with Anderson's many private school bus contractors and independent school bus owner/operators to emphasize the importance of year-round bus maintenance.

"We all play a part in making it better," she  said.

Doubling the effort?

Most buses receive only the state-mandated-minimum one bus inspection per year.

But is that enough?

In nearby states like Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Ohio, state police inspect all school buses twice each year.

Based on the number of violations state police find during their annual inspections and the widespread safety violations 13 Investigates recently found during two months of mid-year spot inspections, some believe Indiana school buses should be inspected twice each year, too.

"I would love to have dual inspections because we're talking about the safety of children here," said Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent Dr. Eugene White. "Over a whole school year, if buses are deteriorating to the point of these buses you showed me, we need to consider that issue. I just think it's necessary."

Many bus mechanics and private bus contractors say they would also like to see more frequent inspections, and Indiana State Police Sgt. Jeff Taylor, who oversees ISP's bus inspection operations in central Indiana, is not opposed to the suggestion.

"It probably would be a good idea," Taylor said. "We surely would like to do more and if we had more people, we would do more."

Representatives from both ISP and the Indiana Department of Education said increasing the number of annual school bus inspections cannot be accomplished without approval from the state legislature.

"The idea has never been considered to the best of my knowledge but it's a very fair question," said Pete Baxter, director of IDOE's Indiana Division of School Traffic Safety. "Can we always do more? Absolutely," said IDOE's Pete Baxter.

Doing more is exactly what parents in Anderson would like to see -- especially parents like Jody Baker who have kids riding bus 87.

"Every bus should be running perfectly," she said after her children got off the bus. "These are my kids. I don't want to see anything happen to them."

Check your child's school bus now

If you want to see how your school district's buses performed during their annual inspection, WTHR's Indiana school bus inspection database is now online and, for the first time, you can see detailed inspection information on thousands of Indiana school buses - including the bus your child rides to school.  Information in the database will be updated as it becomes available from ISP and IDOE.

April 2008 investigation

Broken Buses back story