Broken Buses: Safety violations increasing on Indiana school buses
The number of serious safety violations found on Indiana school buses has jumped sharply, but most parents would have no way of knowing. 13 Investigates is now doing something that's never been done before: releasing inspection results for every school bus in the state. For many Indiana school districts, the online database paints a troubling picture of poor maintenance practices, apathy and risk-taking that puts student safety at risk.
On a cool morning in May, as bus 117 rolls towards his driveway, Art Mabry looks down and smiles.
"Give me a kiss and have a good day," he says, briefly locking eyes with his second-grade granddaughter before watching her climb aboard.
Moments later, the Warren Township school bus pulls around the corner, carrying Haley Mabry to elementary school – and also carrying a secret.
Like many school buses in Warren Township, bus 117 has a history of serious safety violations. It recently failed its annual safety inspection.
Art Mabry had no idea.
"This is my routine. Every day, I put her on that bus, but I didn't know about any of that," he said, looking at a list of violations state inspectors recently found on bus 117. "Bad brakes? Bad steering? Engine problems? Oil and fluid leaks? If there's those kinds of issues going on, that's just total neglect for the safety of all these little children on these buses."
Bus 117 is certainly not alone.
Inspection documents show safety violations involving thousands of school buses all over the state. Many of the violations are for serious safety problems that put hundreds of thousands of students at risk.
Every school bus in Indiana must be inspected at least once per year. It's state law.
Indiana State Police troopers conduct the inspections, which cover all aspects of the vehicle's operation.
Inspectors say detecting mechanical issues is a crucial step in helping to prevent school bus accidents. And if there were to be an accident, state police want to make sure emergency equipment inside the bus is working so students can safely escape.
"I look at every bus as a bus my child would be riding," said ISP motor carrier inspector Chris Kath. "These buses are transporting our children. What's more important than that?"
Kath looks for even minor problems such as holes in seat cushions, broken brackets and trash left on a bus.
But he says it's more serious violations involving brakes, tires, engines, and safety equipment that can result in a bus being classified as Out of Service.
"Out of Service violations are something that could harm the student. It means [the bus] has what we deem a serious safety violation and they cannot transport passengers," he explained.
Indiana State Police tell WTHR no more than 5- to 10-percent of a school district's buses should be placed Out of Service during an annual inspection.
But Eyewitness News has found for many school districts, the Out of Service rate is much higher.
"Wow. That's Terrible"
13 Investigates obtained inspection results for every school bus in Indiana. They show some of Indiana's largest school districts have a horrible safety record when it comes to bus inspections.
Among the worst Out of Service rates in the state:
- M.S.D. Warren Township at 29%
- Lebanon Community Schools at 33%
- M&M Bus Company (servicing Muncie Community Schools) at 37%
- M.S.D. Lawrence Township at 40%
- Illinois Central Bus Company (servicing Gary Community Schools) at 49%
How do that many school buses fail an annual state inspection?
"It's a lack of preparation on our part. The buses should have been better prepared," admits Kevin Mest, chief operating officer for Illinois Central. "We should have done better. We're making plans to do better this year."
He says some of the buses that failed last summer's state inspection were never intended to transport Gary school children and are no longer being used for the school district.
But on a recent visit to Gary, 13 Investigates found many of the Illinois Central buses that failed the state inspection are transporting children to and from school.
Bus 504, which was cited by state police for serious brake and steering problems, transports Kerance Jackson to the Banneker Achievement Center elementary school.
Jackson's mother hadn't heard anything about the bus' troubled past.
"Wow. That's terrible. I really just want to go snatch my son off the bus right now," said Keturah Jackson, after seeing a long list of Out of Service violations for the district's school bus contractor.
Mest, who recently joined the bus company, says new management has been hired to ensure better compliance with state safety rules.
"We learned some important lessons. We know our next inspection is coming in June and I am confident we're going to have a very strong inspection," Mest said.
Warren Township Schools offered a vague statement suggesting it is taking action following its poor inspection this spring.
"In response to the bus inspection data given to us by the Indiana State Police we are diligently looking at ways to improve upon our current maintenance practices and processes," wrote M.S.D. Warren Township media relations director Dennis Jarrett. He offered no specifics and did not respond to repeated requests by WTHR to explain why so many buses were placed Out of Service. He did, however, point out all of the school district's buses were eventually approved by ISP.
Kids at risk
It's a fact that poorly-performing school districts and bus companies like to point out after they suffer through a miserable inspection: buses placed out of service are not allowed to transport students until they are fixed, and many problems cited by ISP are fixed quickly.
The problem is, most buses are only inspected once a year, and school districts know ahead of time when it's happening. Yet on inspection day -- the one day you would expect every Indiana school bus to be in the safest condition possible -- state police are still finding some school districts with 20-, 40-, even 50-percent of their buses that fail inspection.
"I think it boils down to maintenance, or a lack thereof," said Kath, shaking his head. "And I wonder how those people still have their jobs and how the school and the school board is allowing it to go on .... They have to know, you're putting a child at risk."
Some school districts -- like Lawrence Township -- admit their maintenance program is not working.
"This is totally unacceptable," said Lawrence Township Schools operations director Rodger Smith, when WTHR asked him about his school district's 40-percent Out of Service rate. "We're going to change what we're doing and how we're doing things."
Smith says since the district's embarrassing inspection in March, there is now a greater focus on fixing all problems on a school bus each time the bus comes to the maintenance garage for service. (In the past, buses were not subjected to full inspections on a regular basis by school mechanics.) But that new policy is unlikely to make a significant dent in the school district's bus maintenance woes. Smith says his transportation budget has been cut by more than a million dollars annually because of property tax caps that have hit schools hard.
"I'm not saying it's an excuse but it's a pressure all school districts are moving to right now. A lack of budget within our transportation department… think about what kind of pressures that puts on us."
Lawrence Township Schools responded to the pressure by cutting back on bus mechanics. It used to have seven. Now it has only four mechanics to maintain 200 buses. (That 50:1 bus-to-mechanic ratio is much higher than other area school districts.) Some of those mechanics are angry.
"They've cut back on everything," one of the mechanics told WTHR. Several current and former mechanics talked to 13 Investigates. All asked Eyewitness News to withhold their identity for fear of retaliation by the school district. But they are speaking out because they believe fewer mechanics is resulting in more safety problems and more danger on school buses.
"Stuff is happening that shouldn't be happening," said an M.S.D. Lawrence Township mechanic. "Brake chambers bad. Tie rods bad … that's the stopping of the bus. Maybe they are saving a little money, but you can't just put kids at risk."
Eyewitness News has found the number of buses ordered out of service for serious safety violations statewide has jumped 35% over the past 5 years. In 2008, the last time WTHR analyzed Indiana bus inspection statistics, 10% of school buses had been placed Out of Service by state inspectors. The current analysis of all statewide bus inspections shows 13.5% of inspected buses were ordered Out of Service from January 2012 through March 2013.
"We do see a lot of it," Kath said. "It makes you scratch your head sometimes. Our job is to inspect the buses. It's not to be their maintenance department and to tell them what problems they need to fix. It can be frustrating."
Nothing to hide
Other school districts boast very low Out of Service rates. Their school buses seem to sail through state inspections.
Last week, ISP inspectors completed an annual inspection on 39 Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school buses in less than two hours. Only a single bus failed the inspection when a transmission fluid line burst as inspectors looked under the hood.
"They do things the right way and you can tell that right away," Kath said. "Just about every one of their buses was approved."
The district's superintendent says that's no coincidence.
"We expect 100%," said Matt Prusiecki. "We're not waiting for problems to happen. We try to plan and prevent as opposed to respond and react. It's worked well for us."
The school district has routinely maintained an Out Of Service rate between 2- and 7-percent.
It has two mechanics for 39 buses, and that ratio allows for routine maintenance instead of only focusing on emergency repairs.
While Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson permitted WTHR into its maintenance garage and granted full access to watch and videotape its annual inspections, many other school districts would not grant 13 Investigates any access to their facilities.
"If they're doing things right, there should be nothing to hide," Kath said.
Violations kept quiet
So how will you know if school bus safety violations are up – and maintenance is down – at your child's school district … or if it's just the opposite?
Chances are, you won't. (Actually you will if you keep reading.)
School districts don't publish the information, and neither does Indiana State Police.
ISP and the Indiana Department of Education began working to develop an online school bus inspection program in 2006. Back then, the state agencies told WTHR the program was supposed to provide parents access to bus inspection reports for their children's school buses. Seven years later, IDOE has pulled out of the project and ISP says it isn't sure if – or when – such a database will be ready for the public.
"I wish I could give you a timeframe but I can't," said ISP Sgt. Dave Bursten.
ISP has been working with a private company to establish a hand-held electronic inspection system. Compared to paper and pencil inspection forms, the new system has made school bus inspections far more efficient for state troopers. But the focus of the system has been to help inspectors -- not to make school bus records more accessible to the public.
"Keep in mind, our goal here is not to create something for the public. That is a by-product. Our goal is to create a tool for conducting thorough, efficient, robust school bus inspections as we are required to do by state law," Bursten said.
"Parents should see that"
Many parents, school officials, private bus companies, and even state police inspectors say more public access to school bus inspections is a good idea.
"I would like to be told. I would definitely like to be told what's happening with the bus," said Keturah Jackson.
"I as a parent want to know how my child's bus is maintained," agreed Trooper Kath.
Illinois Central also favors heightened public access to inspection records and welcomes the idea of online reporting. "It was hard to even find the inspection results for our own company," Mest told WTHR. "We support full transparency and think it's appropriate to share full results."
"I think parents should see that information. Of course, they want to know," added Mabry.
Rick Pederson, transportation director for Center Grove Schools, says school districts should be on board, as well.
"Parents have a right to know what their child is being transported on and what the condition of that vehicle is. If it was my child, I'd want to be certain that bus was safe before I put my child on that bus. Yeah, I think it's a good idea."
That's why 13 Investigates has created an online school bus inspection tool.
|Click here to view the most recent inspection results for your child's bus|
WTHR's searchable database includes information on every bus from every school district in Indiana. You'll find recent inspection data on public schools buses, private schools buses -- even daycare buses and after-school program buses, too. For the first time, it's all online and all in one place. Take a moment to check the buses in your school district, and to compare its Out of Service rate to other districts around the state.