Mornings at the Trenholms are a blur. Breakfast, dressed, bag packed – off to school.
Three-year-old Christian Trenholm has autism. He is non-verbal and has other health issues. To get to his preschool in Clinton, Massachusetts, he rides a van for kids with special needs.
His mom, Carrie Trenholm, loves his bus driver and is reassured that her company goes the extra mile to test her. Still, she was shocked to learn drug and alcohol testing for the 8,000 drivers like her is not required by the state.
"It’s nerve wracking," she said.
Christian rides what’s called a 7D van. They are typically eight-passenger vehicles most often used to bring children to daycare, private school students to athletic events and special needs students to school. Anyone who is 21, passes a state background check and has a valid driver's license can operate one.
His brothers and sisters – who do not have special needs – take a yellow school bus. Their drivers are federally required to have a commercial driver's license and be drug tested randomly. But the state does not hold 7D drivers to the same standard – even though they often transport the most vulnerable children.
"A child with special needs can’t tell you if something's wrong," Carrie Trenholm said. "They can't come home and tell you, 'My bus driver was speeding. My bus driver slammed on the brakes. My bus driver smelled like alcohol.'"
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John McCarthy runs NRT Bus in North Reading.
"It's crazy. It's absolutely crazy," he said of the lack of regulation on bus drivers for students with special needs.
McCarthy has both large school buses and 7D vans. He drug tests all of his drivers, he said – so he can sleep at night.
"Out of every 10 candidates, we turned away three," he said. Because of drug issues, we asked? "Because of drug issues," he nodded.
Because there is no legal standard, McCarthy said an applicant can fail a drug test with him and simply move on to a company that doesn’t require testing. And with a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, he said, "You walk through the door with a 7D license, they're going to scoop you. It is a scary prospect."
McCarthy said there are some school districts that require their bus companies to test the 7D drivers. But of the 50 schools he drives for, only five have the mandate. We called the superintendent of schools in Clinton to see if they require the 7D drivers that drive their children to be drug-tested, but our call and email were not returned.
So why doesn't the state require testing?
"Cost," McCarthy said emphatically. "I think there are some good lobbyists in there that are trying to keep the costs down of transportation. Transportation is expensive. There's no doubt about it. It’s exploded in the state, but that's just something where we shouldn't be cutting our costs."
Carrie Trenholm couldn't agree more. "Cut somewhere else,” she said. “It shouldn't be cut from our kids."
State Sen. Anne Gobi has filed a bill to change the law – saying that with the opioid epidemic and legalization of recreational marijuana, it's more important than ever. But when she introduced a similar bill in 2013, it never made it out of committee.