June 24, 2018
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Beer found by students on school bus sparks look at loophole in law

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

A bag containing unopened beer left on a school bus by a bus driver and discovered by students prompted an investigation that recently concluded the driver did nothing illegal. But officials are now working to close what they view as a loophole in the law.

The investigation of the incident, which occurred in late January in the Unorganized Territory, revealed that while there are certain provisions regarding alcoholic beverages depending upon the cargo and the configuration of a commercial vehicle, no state law prohibits anyone over 21 who is not prohibited from possessing liquor from transporting alcohol on a school bus. Therefore, the bus driver violated no federal or state laws.

State and school officials declined to release the driver’s name.

The students who found the beer in January on the third seat of the bus said nothing to the state-employed bus driver but told a school official and their parents. One of the parents said he quickly notified local police, the Secretary of State’s Office, the Maine Department of Education and Shelly Lane, superintendent of schools in the Unorganized Territory.

Lane, who confirmed the incident this week, said she turned the matter over to the Maine State Police to determine whether the bus driver violated state or federal law.

“This was not a judgment call. It was a legal call and I had them do it and was thankful that they had the resources to do it,” Lane said.

Lt. Brian Scott of the Maine State Police investigated the complaint along with the Maine Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit of the state police.

“There’s no state law that prohibits a school bus driver from transporting alcohol on a bus, [although] it’s certainly a violation of most policies,” Scott said this week.

After being advised of the incident, Lane said, she checked with six superintendents in the state and discovered that none of their districts’ policies really addressed such a situation.

“I was surprised when I was seeking guidance and counsel from other folks [that] people didn’t have anything in writing,” she said.

Alan Kochis, the Bangor School Department’s director of business, said the transportation of alcohol is not directly addressed in his department’s policies, but it will be when the department updates its policies in September with Cyr Transportation.

Kochis said his department’s policies cover the consumption of alcohol, the use of drugs and controlled substances and possession of illegal substances while on duty, but do not address the possession of alcohol on a bus.

Like other school districts across the state, the Bangor School Department does background checks on prospective bus drivers going back 10 years, and extensive drug and alcohol testing is conducted, Kochis said. The department has the ability to seek the removal of a bus driver from a bus route, if necessary, even though the drivers are employed by a private company, he said.

SAD 68 Superintendent Alan Smith of Dover-Foxcroft said his district has policies that address moral and ethical issues that relate to employees. “I would clearly put this in that category,” he said. Like Bangor, SAD 68 contracts with a private busing firm, but the district has the right to remove bus drivers.

Scott said the recent incident was the first time in his 16½-year career in law enforcement that he had ever heard about a school bus driver transporting alcohol on a bus.

Because of the loophole, Scott said, the Department of Education is contemplating adopting a new rule next year to prohibit school bus drivers from having unopened containers of alcohol in their vehicles

In light of the incident, David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed Thursday that the department will examine its rules and procedures to see if some changes are appropriate.

Some parents whose children ride the bus involved have since pulled them off and now transport them to and from school. These parents were critical of Lane’s response to the incident. They said they received a “vague” memo from Lane that said a Jan. 24 personnel issue had been brought to her attention, but the memo came nine days after the incident was reported. In the memo, Lane told the parents that the appropriate actions were taken according to state policies and procedures.

Lane confirmed that after she sent the memo, she received several calls from parents asking for more information about the incident and when told, Lane said, they were supportive of the driver.

Asked if the driver was disciplined, Lane said it was a personnel issue and she couldn’t comment.

“Certainly with situations like this it’s uncomfortable and unsettling for people,” Lane said.

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