Tia Denton told police that she completed her morning bus route, bought a bottle of whiskey at Kroger and went home. She had two beers and a “tall cup” of whiskey.
Then she tried to drive a school bus full of children home.
“Her speech was slightly slurred. She was unsteady on her feet. Her eyes were glassy. There was a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage,” said Columbus Police Sgt. Terry McConnell, recounting what officers discovered when they pulled her over on Monday. “She failed the sobriety tests.”
She had the bottle of Canadian Mist with her. A 9-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy were with her, too.
The district suspended her without pay yesterday. Because she is a civil-service employee, she is entitled to a hearing before the district takes any other action. That’s scheduled for Dec. 2.
But in Ohio, school-bus drivers can’t have had a DUI conviction within the past six years. If Denton is convicted of driving drunk, she’ll be banned from the job anyway. She also faces child-endangering and open-container charges. Denton did not respond to requests for comment.
No one had complained about Denton’s driving before Monday, district spokesman Jeff Warner said.
On that day, she had veered slightly off her regular route from Southwood Elementary, still driving near the South Side neighborhood where she was supposed to drop off students but zipping up and down the wrong streets, blowing past kids’ stops. Parents waved at her to stop. She didn’t.
Lisa Haas went looking for her three grandkids, who were about an hour late. She found the bus idling at a corner with the stop-arm out and lights flashing. Haas knocked on the door and asked the driver why she was so late and whether her grandchildren were on board.
“She said, ‘I’m not an hour late.’ She said, ‘I don’t have your kids on my bus.’ My granddaughter had walked to the front of the bus by that time. The bus driver looked back at the other kids and said, ‘Are we going this way?’ and pointed to make a left-hand turn. I asked my grandchildren if they were OK. They said they were scared, they were nervous. I said, ‘Where have you been?’ (They) said, ‘We don’t know. We’ve been all over the place.’”
They are 6, 9 and 10 years old. They described being thrown around on the bus as Denton took turns too fast and sped.
Haas followed the bus as it stopped strangely at other corners, holding up traffic and confusing other drivers because the stop-arm still was out. There were still several kids on board.
“Children on the back of the bus pulled their windows down and said, ‘She’s going to kill us! She’s going to kill us!’” Haas said. That’s when she called 911 and told the dispatcher she thought that maybe the driver was drunk.
Another school-bus driver spotted Denton driving with her flashing lights on, too. That bus driver radioed the district’s transportation offices; a transportation supervisor called police to say that the driver wouldn’t answer radio calls and that something, clearly, was very wrong.
In the 911 call from Gary Bright, Columbus’ transportation supervisor, district workers can be heard bustling to try to make contact and track the driver’s movements through GPS. Bright explained to the police dispatcher that Columbus City Schools security workers were planning to try to block the bus with a car.
Police got to her first.
Children were on the bus for about two hours, total. That’s about an hour longer than normal.
Denton, who is 51, was hired this summer through a district job fair. She previously had worked for First Student, the private busing contractor that the district used for the past several years before it took on its own busing this school year. The Marion-Franklin High School graduate and former Air Force sergeant passed her background checks.
Until Monday, she had a record of minor traffic infractions, including charges of failure to control and driving with an expired license in 2007.
But none of the traffic violations would have prevented her from becoming a licensed school-bus driver for the district.
School districts have to know at least six years’ worth of driving history for each driver. Those who have six points on their licenses or at least two serious traffic violations in the past two years, a railroad-crossing violation in the past year, or a DUI conviction within the past six years are disqualified.
Warner said no children got off at the wrong location on Monday. No one was hurt. The last stop was at 4:54 p.m.
Denton was released to her husband instead of being taken to jail because she was so intoxicated. The jail requires medical clearance for arrestees who are too drunk.