NTSB finds 'deficiencies' in vetting of Baltimore school bus drivers

Federal investigators say Baltimore school officials had been alerted for years to crashes involving a school bus driver and to criminal charges against him, yet did not disqualify him from transporting students before he caused a deadly accident last November.

The National Transportation Safety Board identified several "deficiencies" in the way Baltimore City Public Schools and Maryland school officials vet school bus operators and are urging reforms. The school bus driver in November's crash, Glenn Chappell, had a history of seizures as well as traffic accidents, the agency has noted.

"The NTSB is concerned that these BCPS shortcomings in its oversight of school bus drivers place BCPS students, as well as the public, at risk," the investigators wrote in the report released Tuesday.

In the Nov. 1 incident in Southwest Baltimore, a bus Chappell was driving rear-ended a Ford Mustang before crossing into oncoming traffic and striking a Maryland Transit Administration bus.

The crash killed the driver and four passengers on the MTA bus, as well as Chappell. No students were on board the school bus. The accident remains under investigation.

Schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster said in a statement that in the months since the tragedy, officials have stepped up checks of driver certifications, reviews of drivers after accidents, training programs for drivers and sharing of records between contract bus companies and the school district.

In the Baltimore school system, the contracted buses primarily transport students who need special accommodations, like those with disabilities or who are homeless.

"City schools is committed to taking recommended actions to ensure the safety of students, staff members and the public," she said. "The report received today from the National Transportation Safety Board will contribute to continuous improvement of our transportation services."

The agency's "safety recommendation" report calls for several actions — including an audit it considered "urgent" — that city and school officials should take to close gaps that could have prevented the crash. It was released as the NTSB continues a larger review of the incident.

Recommendations include: Improvement in record-keeping and internal controls by the city school system; an independent audit of the district's transportation department that includes review of crash reports and disqualifying conditions for school bus drivers; and changes to state regulations concerning school bus driver qualifications.

Rep. Elijah Cummings urged city and state officials to adopt the recommendations. He renewed a call for a House of Representatives committee to hold a hearing on school bus safety laws and regulations.

"I am deeply disturbed by NTSB's findings that shoddy oversight and sloppy record keeping have put Baltimore students at risk," he said in a statement.

The safety gaps come on top of earlier revelations. The Baltimore Sun previously reported that Chappell had a history of seizures, and that the system of federal and state regulations designed to ensure that bus drivers are healthy enough to transport students might not have revealed it unless he voluntarily disclosed it.

The NTSB report exposed new details about Chappell's driving history and the school system's knowledge of it.

Investigators revealed that, among a dozen crashes he was involved in over the past five years, Chappell had driven his school bus into cars and poles in five incidents. The school system had records of four of the crashes — a fifth wreck had occurred about four months before the deadly November incident, according to the report.

In September 2011, Chappell backed a school bus into a parked car. A month after that, he passed out while driving and hit three poles and a parked car, investigators said. An aide on the bus suffered injuries to the neck and back in that crash, while a student on board was not hurt.

In 2012, he sideswiped a parked car after dropping off a student. A similar incident occurred in September 2015, and Chappell was suspended for 72 days for failing to report it.

Investigators also found the city school system had no records of nearly a dozen alerts it should have received regarding criminal charges against Chappell since 2011.

His criminal record includes some driving-related infractions: In 2014 he pleaded guilty to failing to show a registration card when a police officer asked to see it, and in 2015 to driving a vehicle with a suspended registration.

Judges in Howard County and Baltimore had also issued protective orders against him in domestic-violence cases in 2011 and 2012, and he was found guilty of violating such orders three times between 2012 and 2013. He pleaded guilty to second-degree assault in December 2012 and was sentenced to a year of probation.

NTSB investigators said that because records of those incidents were missing from the file the school system kept on Chappell, they "could not determine whether BCPS staff examined the driver's criminal records during his years transporting students for the school system." They called it "yet another example of missing documentation that hindered adequate oversight of school bus drivers."

Imani-Angela Rose, director of Joshua's Place Early Learning and Enrichment Center in Northwest Baltimore — whose students ride the city-contracted buses — called the report findings "disturbing."

"Five accidents and other warnings? That's just unbelievable that no one had stopped his ability to drive," she said. "I'm hopeful the city will rectify this and create a better system of catching these things earlier."

Investigators also found fault with the Maryland State Department of Education's system for gathering information that could disqualify school bus drivers from their jobs. Department officials do not require local school districts to notify them if a background check on a prospective bus driver turns up information such as certain criminal records or health conditions.

Investigators recommended the state system clarify what disqualifies a person from driving a school bus and require districts to notify them when pre-employment background checks of bus drivers reveal disqualifying conditions.

State education officials said Tuesday they would consider the recommendations.

"Student safety continues to be our highest priority," spokeswoman Samantha Foley said in a statement. "MSDE staff are committed to working with local school systems to implement processes and procedures that ensure the safe transportation of all students."

A December NTSB report offering a preliminary assessment of the crash revealed that Chappell, who was 67, had stopped responding to a school aide in the moments before the crash. He had a history of seizures, as well as of diabetes and hypertension — all conditions that should have disqualified him from operating a commercial vehicle under state and federal law, according to that report.

Doctors had repeatedly cleared Chappell to drive under a federal system designed to keep drivers with certain risky health conditions from operating passenger vehicles. Drivers are required to sign documents under penalty of perjury that detail their medical histories before they undergo the health exams at least once every two years.

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