ABC27 school bus safety investigation leads to changes that allow parents access to information

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania State Police is making school bus inspections available to parents as a result of an ABC27 investigation.

“Knowing that these buses are running efficiently and that they have all the standards, that they’re safe enough to take your child to school and home and stuff, I think it’s very important,” Tammy Barrett said shortly after walking her 8-year-old twin daughters to their bus stop in Cumberland County.

In January 2015, ABC27 filed a right-to-know request for school bus inspections. State Police, which conducts the safety checks, denied the request. ABC27 appealed to the Office of Open Records.

“Millions of school children are using school buses every day in Pennsylvania,” Office of Open Records Executive Director Erik Arneson said. “And I think parents have a reasonable interest in knowing whether or not those school buses have passed inspection, what issues they’ve had, that sort of thing.”

However, the Office of Open Records denied ABC27’s appeal. Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law allows agencies to withhold records that are considered noncriminal investigations, including school bus inspections.

A proposed amendment would make safety inspections public, but lawmakers are still considering the legislation.

Although current law allows agencies to withhold safety inspection reports, ABC27 learned the law does not prevent them from releasing those documents.

“If the State Police wanted to, they could make these public tomorrow,” Arneson said.

ABC27 asked if State Police would voluntarily make the inspections public. At first, the answer was no.

Several months later, after compiling research about different states that make school bus inspections available to the public, ABC27 asked again. State Police considered and, a few weeks later, agreed.

“We made the determination that there’s nothing that shouldn’t be released or couldn’t be released within the report,” State Police Cpl. Adam Reed said. “Once that data’s put out there, it’s just another tool the community could use to take a look at the school buses in their area and make a personal determination on what’s best for the safety of their child.”

Reed also told ABC27 that State Police is interested in promoting transparency.

Previously, State Police released data showing how many school buses were inspected and how many from each county did not initially pass their inspections. That information did not specify corresponding school districts, bus numbers, or actual inspection reports.

The PSP right-to-know officer is currently compiling school bus inspection records for ABC27. Since there are so many documents, the process will likely take several weeks.

To give the public a better idea of what happens during a school bus inspection, Trooper David Grbich did a demonstration for ABC27.

Grbich says state police do a safety inspection on each bus at least once a year. In addition, the vehicles go through state inspections just like individual cars.

State police also conduct random spot checks on school buses.

The inspections cover items the buses are required to carry, the markings on the buses, and the ways the buses themselves run.

School bus inspections are pass/fail. Buses that fail are not allowed to hit the road until infractions are fixed. Minor violations may require a mechanic to sign off on repairs and submit the evidence to state police. Major violations may require follow-up inspections.

If something goes wrong between inspections, the bus could potentially stay in service until the state catches the issue. And in the past, parents did not have access to information about whether their children’s buses were supposed to be out of commission.

“The more that parents are aware of that kind of stuff, we can be like, ‘Hey, wait – that bus is not supposed to be on the road and it is’,” Barrett said.

She told ABC27 she is relieved State Police has agreed to make the records public.

“Any information a parent can have to help make sure their child is safe is important,” Barrett said. “You can’t say no to that.”

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