Flat tires, damaged brakes: Why did State Patrol approve these school buses to pick up students?

MILWAUKEE -- Public records show school buses in southeast Wisconsin were marked as "approved" to pick up children, despite recorded defects like damaged brakes, flat tires and malfunctioning emergency exits.

Wisconsin's School Bus Inspection Manual says Wisconsin State Patrol inspectors, who inspect each school bus at least once per year, should order buses off the road until their violations are fixed by taking them "out of service" if they have certain safety violations that are not repaired during the inspections.

After going through nearly 8,000 pages of school bus inspections, the FOX6 Investigators found safety violations that were not marked as repaired during the inspection, but were still marked as "approved for service." Examples of such violations include flat tires, unsecured seats, problems opening emergency exits, broken exhaust pipes, steering issues, and damaged, leaking and inoperative brakes.

Click here for FOX6's searchable database of Southeast Wisconsin school buses to find out how your child's bus did on its 2017 school bus inspection.

'They just clicked the wrong box'

Wisconsin State Patrol Sgt. Bradley Ocain

"I think what a lot of parents would want to know is, are these buses that have 'out of service' violations getting sent back out on the roads?" FOX6 Investigator Amanda St. Hilaire asked Wisconsin State Patrol Sgt. Bradley Ocain.

"That could definitely be a concern," Sgt. Ocain said.

Sgt. Ocain went on to say that State Patrol school bus inspectors are thorough, and he doesn't want to speculate about what happened during inspections FOX6 brought to his attention. However, he acknowledged that when buses are repaired during their inspections, it is easy for inspectors to skip the step of marking that down before hitting the "approve" button.

"They just clicked the wrong box," Sgt. Ocain said.

"It's hard to tell after the fact," St. Hilaire replied.

"It's a little hard to tell after the fact," Sgt. Ocain acknowledged.

School bus mileage

FOX6 also found inconsistencies with school bus inspection odometer readings. State Patrol inspectors use those readings to figure out if buses truly stay off the road when they are disapproved for service.

Fourteen inspections in a row show buses listed at exactly 100,000 miles. Other back-to-back inspections show duplicate readings.

Sgt. Ocain says the repeated odometer readings could be the result of human error, or of a system glitch. State Patrol has gone through several recent changes in its school bus inspection system, transitioning from paper-only reports to electronically-filed reports. After the transition, there was another software change.

"It's definitely improving, and we'll keep moving forward to correct any of those errors as far as data entry and things that we would find," Sgt. Ocain said.

"A fine-toothed comb"

"What's your response to any parents who  might be watching this and wondering, 'If these things were overlooked during the inspection report, what else is getting overlooked during the inspection itself?'" St. Hilaire asked.

"Well, I think the first thing that parents need to understand is that school buses are highly regulated, more so probably than anything else that’s on the road right now simply because they’re transporting children," Sgt. Ocain said. "Our inspectors every year are going through these buses with a fine-toothed comb looking for violations."

Sgt. Ocain says there are 15 State Patrol school bus inspectors. But public records show in 2017, just three of those inspectors performed 73 percent of State Patrol's 3,420 inspections in southeast Wisconsin. The FOX6 Investigators found days when one person is marked as inspecting more than 30 buses in fewer than eight hours. For example, on June 16, 2016, public records show one inspector inspecting 35 buses between 6:29 a.m. and 1:56 .pm. This schedule would require spending less than 13 minutes per bus with no breaks for the inspector.

Sgt. Ocain says inspecting that many buses at once is not an everyday occurrence, but points out his inspectors work hard to meet the requirements of inspecting each active school bus at least once per year. State Patrol is also making an effort to do more surprise "spot check" inspections on school buses, in addition to their scheduled annual inspections.

"Does State Patrol need or want more resources to keep doing these inspections as more buses get out on the roads?" FOX6 Investigator Amanda St. Hilaire asked.

"We could always use more personnel," Sgt. Ocain said. "That would be great. I wouldn't turn it down. But I think right now our inspectors that we do have, as long as we're fully-staffed, are able to meet that mission of inspecting those buses annually."