State police seek criminal charges for more school bus safety violations
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
State police say "it's a mess" they've been trying to clean up since 13 Investigates first exposed it in February. The mess at First Student school bus company may finally be improving following the recommendation of criminal charges, a management shakeup and another miserable inspection at Indianapolis' largest private school bus contractor.
Indianapolis - No one can say First Student wasn't warned.
Since the beginning of the year, the private school bus contractor had failed one inspection after another.
First came WTHR's inspections in February. Two of every three school buses checked by 13 Investigates (with the help of a certified bus mechanic) had serious safety violations involving mis-aligned brakes, bald tires, rusted-out exhaust pipes, leaking fuel and fluids, and broken or missing shocks.
Then, in response to the investigation, Indiana State Police spot checked First Student buses in February, March and April -- with dismal results. Of the 37 buses checked, 32 of them were "rejected" or ordered "out of service" by inspectors -- a failure rate of 86%.
At the time, a state inspector told WTHR he wouldn't put his kids on one of the First Student buses, which transport more than 17,000 students to Indianapolis Public Schools daily.
"We told them at that point we were very disappointed in the maintenance of their buses and their program overall," said Wayne Flick, an ISP master trooper who monitors school bus inspections in central Indiana. "We had the same discussion with them in February, in March and in April."
The discussions didn't seem to be working and neither did extra muscle power.
Hours after WTHR aired its investigation, First Student brought in senior managers and extra mechanics from around the country to improve the poorly-maintained fleet that transports more than 17,000 students daily to Indianapolis Public Schools. Night after night, WTHR cameras captured First Student mechanics working well past midnight to correct safety violations.
"These mechanics have been going nonstop," said First Student regional manager Andre Dean. "The things that you cited, they are definitely safety issues and a concern for our company."
Putting that concern to rest was something First Student desperately wanted, and its big chance for redemption came in June. State inspectors arrived early on the morning of June 16 to begin an annual inspection of each of the 280+ school buses at First Student's south-side bus lot.
Inspectors were shocked to find -- once again -- nothing had changed.
More serious problems
"We found all kinds of problems that showed they weren't taking us seriously," Flick said. "We're talking about some serious things like brakes and fuel leaks ... that's why buses were taken out of service."
More than one in four First Student buses inspected in mid-June was ordered "out of service" by State Police for safety violations such as fuel leaks, broken shocks and dangerous brakes. Inspection reports also show many of the buses were "filthy."
After inspecting 149 buses over a two-day period, inspectors had seen enough. They told First Student managers they would come back to inspect the rest of the buses at a later date, and before they left, state police did something that is almost unheard of.
A routine annual inspection became a potential crime scene.
State police issued two separate "complaint and summons" against a First Student manager. They are asking the Marion County prosecutor's office to file criminal charges against that manager for "failing to maintain school buses," a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.
Flick said state inspectors issued the first complaint on June 16, and decided to add the second on June 17 because "the [First Student] buses were a mess on both days we inspected them."
"The inspection was horrible, awful and mind boggling," Flick explained. "I told them, 'You've taken advantage of us. We believed in you and trusted you and you haven't done anything.' We worked with them month after month. We gave them every chance in the book to get their buses up to code and they didn't do that. We wanted to send a message that we are serious."
WTHR is not naming the manager at this time because he has not been arrested or formally charged by the prosecutor's office.
State police weren't the only ones who were angry.
Top officials at Indianapolis Public Schools felt betrayed, as well.
"It boggles my mind to think after all the attention on Channel 13 , you wouldn't address that situation immediately," said Dexter Suggs, IPS's transportation director of operations. "How in the world could you not focus on what needs to be done, like cleaning the bus? That just blew me away. I couldn't quite understand how in the world could you not clean the bus when you know it's going through inspection."
Suggs said First Student showed a "lack of urgency and lack of knowledge" by continually failing to correct widespread problems that WTHR had exposed months earlier.
That changed after the June inspection by state police.
First Student promptly fired its contract manager and head mechanic, and IPS has been keeping a much closer eye on the bus company's operations.
"We now have someone down there every day to ensure what they say is being done is actually being done," Suggs said.
The changes seem to be paying off.
In July, when state police returned to complete the annual inspection of First Student's remaining buses, nearly 90% of them were approved during their initial check.
"It's amazing what happened when you brought in a different set of people with a different focus who understand exactly what needs to be done and they get the job done," Suggs said.
First Student agrees.
"Changing the contract manager and [head] mechanic made a big difference," said First Student spokeswoman Nicole Jones.
While maintenance and safety operations seem to be back on track, state police say they are not done with their inspections at First Student. Based on the company's shaky track record over the past seven months, state inspectors plan to return to First Student's bus garage to conduct spot inspections throughout the school year.