Do School Bus Drivers Undergo Background Checks?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 10 2013 8:18 AM

Don’t School Bus Drivers Undergo Background Checks?

Ariel Castro had run-ins with the police. Why was he allowed to drive children?

School buses and drivers at the Atlantic Express Transportation Corp. in Queens head back to work after the drivers and matrons suspended their January 16th strike on February 20, 2013 in New York City.
School buses and drivers at the Atlantic Express Transportation Corp. in Queens head back to work after the drivers and matrons suspended their January 16th strike on February 20, 2013 in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ariel Castro was charged Wednesday with four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape in the Cleveland, abductions now dominating national news. Castro was a school bus driver from 1991 to 2012, during which time he was accused of domestic violence. Do they perform background checks on school bus drivers?

Yes. Potential Ohio school bus drivers submit to a state and federal criminal background check before they can be hired. Once they are behind the big wheel, a computer checks the drivers’ names against state arrest records on a nightly basis. A federal criminal background check is supposed to be repeated every six years.

At the time Castro applied to become a bus driver in 1991, he appears to have had no criminal record, so the initial background checks would have been clean. Grimilda Figueroa, with whom he had children, claimed he beat her savagely in 1993, breaking her nose and ribs and causing a blood clot in her brain. Castro was never tried for the incident, however, because Figueroa failed to appear before the grand jury that was set to indict Castro. (Figueroa later said that Castro bribed and threatened her to prevent her from testifying.) The incident, therefore, would not appear on an Ohio state criminal background check, which reports only convictions. The daily check of arrests that Ohio now performs for school personnel would have turned up the incident, but it wasn’t instituted until 2009, more than 15 years after the domestic violence accusation.

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Why didn’t the arrest turn up on Castro’s repeat federal background checks? It’s not entirely clear. If Castro was fingerprinted in connection with the arrest and local law enforcement submitted the information to the FBI, it should have appeared on a federal criminal background check with a notation stating that the grand jury failed to indict Castro. The temporary restraining order that Figueroa took out against Castro in 2005 would also have appeared in the federal criminal background check if submitted to the FBI. Either the information wasn’t submitted to federal authorities—participation by local officials is voluntary—or the follow-up federal background checks weren’t conducted.

Ohio has had trouble with the criminal background checks of school bus drivers in the past. In 2007, the Columbus school system closed temporarily while the state investigated the criminal and driving records of dozens of drivers hired from a third-party company that had failed to conduct the required checks. Five of the 60 drivers failed the background checks.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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