Every day, hundreds of Chicago-area children are transported to school not in cars or buses, but alone with cab drivers, in taxicabs hired by school districts. But a six-month investigation by NBC Chicago has found that dozens of those school taxi drivers have criminal histories, ranging from public indecency and domestic battery, to soliciting a prostitute and even child sexual assault.
NBC 5 Investigates surveyed 73 school districts throughout suburban Chicago, focusing primarily on special education districts and cooperatives, to learn how many use taxicabs to transport their students to and from school. More than half say they do.
The reasons make sense: Special-needs students often have such individualized schedules that it’s not always practical to transport them by bus. Local taxi companies have met that need with special "school service" programs which provide regular taxi service to schools and districts across Chicago. It’s now a multi-million-dollar industry for such suburban cab companies as American Taxi Dispatch and 303 Taxi.
It’s also highly regulated. Not just any cab driver is allowed to transport students, according to Terry Montalbano of the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. He says Illinois’ requirements are among the strictest in the nation.
"Whether it’s a cab or a bus, it doesn’t really matter," he said "The cargo is the same: The children."
Montalbano said any cab driver who transports students must get fingerprinted and have their criminal background checked in all fifty states.
"There’s a multitude of offenses that, if a driver was convicted, we would not allow them to drive a cab or a school bus," he said.
Those offenses can range from violent felony convictions down to an extensive history of traffic citations.
Even after a driver is approved, the Secretary of State receives real-time updates for every cabbie’s criminal and driving records and can cancel or revoke a permit at any time.
For the most part, the system seems to work. But NBC Chicago discovered one alarming case where it didn’t, plus other cases where, despite the state’s strict rules, it is still perfectly legal for a driver with a checkered past to have a child alone in his or her car, driving them, often up to an hour, twice a day, to and from school.
In all, NBC Chicago found 66 school cab drivers -- about one out of every 10 drivers on the school lists we examined -- arrested or convicted of such crimes as aggravated battery, possession of a controlled substance, firearms violations, assault, I.D. theft, and mob action. Several had violations of probation or orders of protection.
By law, every school district which uses cabs is supposed to maintain a list of their permitted drivers. But of the 46 suburban districts NBC Chicago found using taxis, fully half admitted, in writing, that they have no idea who is driving their children.
One school driver we do know about is Jean Juste. By all accounts, he never should have been granted a permit to drive school children. But his name appears on the drivers’ lists of eight of the districts surveyed by NBC Chicago.
Jean Juste was arrested in 1993 on 19 separate counts of repeatedly sexually assaulting a girl over a 15-month period, starting when she was just 13 years old. In 1994, he was convicted on one count of sexual assault, and certified in Cook County criminal court as a child sex offender. A few years later he was convicted on federal charges of smuggling and selling cocaine.
Yet he was granted a school permit to drive schoolchildren for 303 Taxi, one of the two largest providers of school taxi services in the Chicago suburbs.
NBC Chicago provided Juste’s criminal information to the Secretary of State’s office, which has now launched an investigation into 303’s hiring practices. 303 Taxi declined an on-camera interview and would not answer questions about how Jean Juste became one of their school drivers.
A spokeswoman provided a general written statement, saying, in part: "We have made improvements to our internal controls and procedures for monitoring drivers in this program, and we are confident that our improved process will ensure the safety of all school children above all else."
Another 303 school driver is Laura Mitchell. Ten separate districts listed her as a driver for their children. She was charged in 2008 with repeatedly slamming a Chicago schoolteacher against the wall of her classroom. But she was eventually found guilty of a reduced charge -- misdemeanor battery -- which does not fall under the category of crimes which prohibit a driver from getting a school permit. She currently has a valid permit to drive children.
Syed Saeed is a similar example. He currently works as a driver for American Taxi Dispatch and drives children to school. However, he was arrested in 2012 on a warrant as a fugitive from justice, resulting from arrests in Texas for counterfeiting and disorderly conduct. But his eventual conviction was on a single charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct, again not enough to revoke his school permit. He has a valid permit to drive children.
Like 303, American Taxi Dispatch declined an interview, and did not respond to questions about its school drivers.
At least one school district has stopped using taxis to transport its students. John Hutton, superintendent of Gurnee School District 56, said his district switched to using their own buses, because they didn’t trust who was behind the wheel of the cabs they were using.
"[We were] very concerned about a driver being in there with our children, not knowing anything about them," Hutton said "And the driver doing something that would be horrible for our kids."
"If you’re going to protect kids and you’re going to make sure the kids are as safe as you can make them, that’s a wild card you just don’t like to play," he said.