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Officials reviewing how Dist. 57 handled bus driver DUI
By Robert McCoppin and Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff

Betty Burden


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Published: 3/11/2010 12:48 PM | Updated: 3/11/2010 9:43 PM

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Mount Prospect school officials maintained Thursday they could not prevent an allegedly drunken bus driver from taking home a busload of students without finding evidence of alcohol use themselves.

But a federal official said that's a misreading of regulations meant to protect children from dangerous drivers.

Now, school officials are reviewing whether they should have stopped Betty Burden from driving after being told by one of Burden's co-workers that she smelled of alcohol.

The Mount Prospect Elementary District 57 school board scheduled a special meeting for Monday night to discuss the handling of the incident, and is expecting a large crowd.

"We appreciate and understand that people wish the bus had never left the district, or that once it was stopped, it stayed stopped," said a statement on the District 57 Web site. "We will be addressing these concerns as part of our investigation of this incident. We will also be reviewing all of our transportation training needs and procedures to determine what can be done to prevent an incident like this from ever happening again."

School board President Joe Leane said the district was prohibited from preventing Burden from driving unless it had "actual knowledge" of a violation.

He cited federal 49 CFR 383 in the Code of Federal Regulations, which states: "No employer having actual knowledge that a driver is using alcohol while performing safety-sensitive functions shall permit the driver to perform or continue to perform safety-sensitive functions," where "actual knowledge" is defined as direct observation.

But a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said nothing in the code prohibits officials from preventing a suspected drunken driver from driving.

"That doesn't even make sense," Duane DeBruyne said.

"We're reviewing that," Leane said. "If any corrections need to be made, they'll be made. That's all I can tell you."

That response did not satisfy some parents, who wanted more answers about why the driver was allowed to transport 50 students after administrators were warned she smelled of liquor. Stopped by police after she took the students home, Burden had a blood-alcohol concentration of .230 percent, and .226 percent when tested again later, Mount Prospect police said.

"Beyond the judgment of the driver, which we all know was horrible, I still need to find out what the timeline was and what happened," said parent Roberta Flack, whose daughter rode on the bus. She said she was worried but wanted to get more information from the school district.

"Obviously, I'm upset about it. It's horrible."

Other parents stuck up for the accused driver and the administrators.

Betty Burden used to drive Brygida Szoepe's daughter to school.

"This was my lady," Szoepe said about Burden. "She seemed so nice. She used to help parents buckle in the preschoolers. They have these shoulder straps and it took some time. I was never concerned about her. ... I saw her picture on the news yesterday and couldn't believe it."

Tim and Tonia Romanelli, who picked up their children from Lions on Thursday, had some concerns but stood behind District 57 officials.

"The bus driver had passed random drug tests," she said. "I think (Transportation Director Vince) Ramirez acted the best possible way given the situation."

But Tim Romanelli said the drug testing policy might have to be more strict.

Burden drove Rochelle Norwell's daughter home from Lincoln Middle School on Tuesday. Norwell also stood by the actions of District 57, but said something has to be done to ensure this doesn't happen again.

"Maybe all of the buses should have Breathalyzers," Norwell said. "District 57 prides itself on owning their own buses, so they're the ones responsible. They need to go the extra mile and make sure this doesn't happen again."

Bus drivers are not unionized, Leane said.

Burden, 54, of the 1400 block of North Park Drive, Mount Prospect, was charged with felony driving under the influence Tuesday afternoon.

Another bus driver had smelled alcohol on Burden's breath, school officials said, and Transportation Director Ramirez found out just before the bus left Lions Park school at about 3:35 p.m.

Ramirez intercepted the bus at its first stop, got on and talked to Burden, but couldn't conclude she'd been drinking, officials said.

But he followed the bus in his own vehicle and called police at 3:45 p.m. for them to make a trained assessment. Officers responded immediately but arrived after Burden had finished driving about 50 children home.

Police said Burden admitted drinking vodka and orange juice at lunch, and failed a field sobriety test.

A breath test at the police station found she had a blood-alcohol content of .226 percent. Under zero-tolerance laws, it is illegal for school bus drivers to have any alcohol in their blood.

Burden apparently drove students home from three schools that day - not only Lions Park. Parents said she also drove students from Lincoln and Westbrook schools. The school district's Web site stated the incident involved the route serving all three schools.

Drivers typically drive multiple routes each day, due to staggered school schedules. District 57 Superintendent Elaine Aumiller did not return a call for comment Thursday, but Leane had not heard anything to suggest Burden hadn't driven her full route.

Leane said he had heard from many parents, in person, by phone and by e-mail.

"Some people are very upset, especially parents who had children on the bus, and that's completely understandable," he said. "I'm as outraged as they are."

"Unfortunately, in a situation like this, it's difficult to say, but you can't make decisions simply based on an allegation or concern," he said. "That has to be investigated and there has to be a reasonable basis to make a decision, and unfortunately that takes time."

Burden was suspended without pay and will be recommended for termination, Leane said.

If convicted, Burden could face one to three years in prison. Her next court date is April 1.

She has no prior criminal record and no prior traffic violations, and had passed two random drug tests since 2008, Aumiller said in an e-mail. Her license to drive a bus, which she got in 1991, will be automatically suspended for one year. If convicted, a DUI would disqualify her from driving a bus for three years.

The board is scheduled to meet in closed session at 6:30 p.m. Monday, followed by an open meeting with public comment at 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln Middle School, 700 W. Lincoln St., Mount Prospect.

• Daily Herald reporters Marni Pyke and Joseph Ryan contributed to this story.