NEWMAN - The drug testing procedure used by First Student, the firm which provides transportation services for the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District, was pointedly called into question Monday when company officials went before the school board to address a December incident in which a substitute driver on a route was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of a controlled substance.

The First Student representatives were also questioned about the firm’s supervisory practices and procedures, and acknowledged that the same driver had been the subject of concerns expressed about her performance when taking an Orestimba High group to a college visit in Sacramento in October.

Superintendent Randy Fillpot told Mattos Newspapers prior to the meeting that the district had been assured by local management in October that the driver, who usually drove in another district, would not be assigned to Newman-Crows Landing duty in the future. 

Mark Frith, Northern California area manager for First Student, told Mattos Newspapers that the employee who was serving as local manager remains an employee but is no longer in the management role, and said the firm will be recruiting a new location manager. In the meantime Senior Location Manager Brigden Summers, who appeared with Frith at the board meeting, is overseeing the local transportation operation.

Frith apologized to the school board, and assured trustees that the safety of students remains the top priority at First Student.

“It is not something I take lightly, what happened here,” he stated. “It is something that we are dealing with quite severely.”

The incident also has the company reflecting on what it can do differently, Frith added.

The company’s procedures - particularly those involving drug testing - were scrutinized before the board.

Summers said the department complies fully with Department of Transportation regulations regarding drug tests. Fifty percent of First Student employees are tested for drugs each year, he reported, and 25 percent are screened for alcohol. He said employees are randomly selected for drug testing, and told without notice to report to a clinic to submit samples for evaluation.

But sending employees to a clinic rather than requiring a sample be produced on-site provides a window of opportunity for the individual being tested to procure a clean urine sample for submission, said board member Vern Snodderly, who was outspoken in his criticism of the practice.

“I think you’re making a mistake here. It you don’t get a collection at your site, there is a lot of opportunity for someone else to provide the sample,” said Snodderly, who added that employees using banned substances often carry a bottle of “clean” urine.

“I’m not happy with that. I don’t think I trust it,” he stated. “I think you are following the law, but I don’t think you are going the extra mile to protect our students here. How you collect samples is a big issue.”

The practice of allowing employees to go from the company location to a clinic to submit a sample undermines the integrity of the testing program, Snodderly reiterated.

“I’m sure you have some fine bus drivers here, but the way you collect samples is the worst possible scenario,” he stated. “I think you’re doing it all wrong. You need to change that system tomorrow.”

Frith said he would raise the concerns with First Student management.

Supervisory practices were also questioned.

Procedure requires a “positive check-in” with supervisory personnel when a driver reports for work, Summers told the board. Part of that process includes management or supervising employees to engage the driver in conversation, he said.

In response to a question posed by Snodderly, Summers said that initial information indicated that the driver arrested in December was spoken with before leaving on the route, but added that an internal investigation into the incident is ongoing.

The October incident was still another concern which surfaced in the wake of the December arrest.

Orestimba Principal Justin Pruett said that the driver arrested in December drove a high school group to Sacramento for a college visit on Oct. 12. Those on the trip reported concerns regarding the driver taking wrong turns and not knowing where to go once near the Sacramento area, he said, which were relayed to First Student.

Fillpot said the district was told that the driver would not be assigned to Newman-Crows Landing again.

Frith told the board that the concerns which arose in October were apparently not communicated to the appropriate individuals as they should have been. Normally, he said, one of the company’s certified instructors would conduct an evaluation of a driver following a complaint. Potential consequences could include steps such as relieving a driver, requiring re-training or counseling, he indicated.

Frith told Mattos Newspapers that First Student, through an internal investigation, is looking into what steps were taken in response to the October complaint and also why the driver was subsequently assigned to a Newman-Crows Landing route on the December day of the arrest.

But, he had previously told the board while addressing the situation, “from an internal standpoint our local leadership was not strong enough.”

Fillpot said he will continue to meet with First Student representatives to address concerns, and report back to the board on a regular basis on what steps are being taken in response.

The district will continue to evaluate its relationship with First Student, Fillpot told Mattos Newspapers.

“We have had a very long relationship with First Student. I think for the most part there have been a lot of positives, but this has been extremely disheartening,” the superintendent stated.

Fillpot said he was encouraged by the response of First Student management and the information presented to the board, but stressed that the issues and concerns raised by district administration and board members must be addressed to the district’s satisfaction.

Supervision of drivers is one concern Fillpot said he had previously addressed in meetings with First Student management.

“I hope they are taking a serious look at their entire personnel and everybody involved in the process,” he told Mattos Newspapers after the board meeting. “We need to be assured (that concerns are addressed).”

Board President Janice Conforti also emphasized the importance of addressing the concerns.

“We have a lot of students who are riding on your buses,” she told Frith and Summers. “We want them safe.”