Many children are being driven to and from school by cab drivers who have no permit to drive students, according one taxi driver.
The driver, who requested anonymity, originally contacted NBC Chicago last winter with his concerns. He claims that his employer, American Taxi Dispatch, routinely uses non-permitted drivers on regular routes to transport schoolchildren, often special-needs students, to and from their public or private schools.
Without a permit, a driver is not on the radar of the Illinois Secretary of State, the department that issues and regulates all school-transport permits. In addition, those non-permitted drivers would not have undergone the extensive background checks and licensing procedures which the Secretary of State requires of anyone who drives schoolchildren in Illinois.
"It is completely possible that a person charged with, or convicted of, a serious crime, including a known sex offender, could be picking up a child and transporting them back and forth from their home to their school," the driver said.
By law, any school district in Illinois is supposed to keep a list of drivers who transport its children, including any taxi drivers. Such a list can provide an extra resource to the Secretary of State to keep track of drivers and make sure they all have permits.
But NBC Chicago has found that, of the 46 school districts we found who acknowledge hiring cab companies to transport students, fully half admitted they have no idea who is driving their children. Still others provided a list, but acknowledged that they didn’t have it in-house. It was not until they recieved NBC Chicago's request that they asked for a list from the cab company.
Critics say the absence of this kind of oversight could potentially open the door for a cab company to use non-permitted drivers. And that’s exactly what’s happening, according to the driver from American Taxi Dispatch.
"[American] is negotiating a contract with the school district that says ‘we will provide you with properly-licensed, properly-endorsed drivers,'" the driver said. "And they’re not doing it."
"We do not let a school bus driver climb into a bus and drive a busload of kids … until they have gone through this intensive program to be a bus driver," he said. "But we routinely let drivers get children in their cars, who started driving yesterday."
NBC Chicago repeatedly contacted American Taxi Dispatch, but the company declined all requests for an interview and did not return phone calls. American also would not discuss individual cab drivers.
"These drivers are in these cars with these children, sometimes as much as an hour or more twice a day," the driver said. "Every parent whose child is picked up by a cab driver should be uncomfortable with this."
The driver claims that, in some cases, drivers who do not have permits are transporting children on regular routes every day. NBC Chicago observed one driver pick up and drop off children two days in a row, apparently consistent with the American driver’s claims. Repeated checks with the Illinois Secretary of State show no permit for the driver observed.
Terry Montalbano of the Illinois Secretary of State’s office says the one thing -- the only thing -- that the state requires of cab companies is that they keep them apprised of every driver who they want to drive children, so that the state can run background checks and certify the driver.
"All [the cab company] is responsible for, is to not let a driver pick up a child that they have not notified us of," said Montalbano. If the cab companies are dispatching just any driver, at any time to pick up kids, Montalbano said, "they’re dead wrong."
"The cab company has the most direct control to prevent non-licensed, unendorsed drivers from picking up children, and they are not being diligent to prevent that from happening," the American driver said. "There are lots of good drivers who drive kids to school everyday, who are properly licensed, and who are great people. But there’s a whole universe of drivers out there who are not properly license and who are driving children every day."
"I don’t want to wait until a child comes forward and says, ‘I’ve been harmed,’ to say I knew this was going on. And I didn’t say anything," he added.