SEATTLE - Every school day, taxis and Town Cars crisscross the Puget Sound area transporting Seattle Public School students.
The private cars are dispatched at the request of the district and charge regular metered fares.
Many of the students are taken to school by a driver who is essentially a stranger. And a KIRO 7 investigation has uncovered Seattle Public Schools fails to personally screen those drivers.
We first targeted the cost of that single program but the district also uses private cars for children with disabilities. An estimated 1,600 students get “door to door” transportation and most of those rides are by cab.
“I assumed that they had extensive background checks and that they were screened carefully,” one Seattle mother said. “They are dealing with the city’s most vulnerable youth.”
We’re calling the mother “Darla” and not revealing her identity to protect her daughter.
Darla’s daughter, now a young woman, faces everyday challenges that are obvious to people even during casual encounters.
“After about a five minute conversation it would be clear to you that she had some issues,” Darla said. “She presents as someone much younger, maybe a 10-year-old.”
Her daughter was not able to take the bus because of behavioral and mental health problems; instead, SPS paid a cab driver to take her to Ballard High School, something she now bitterly regrets.
“Don’t assume your child is safe with a cab driver,” Darla cautioned during a recent sit-down interview at her home.
Just a month after the man started driving the teen, Darla became suspicious about his behavior. While he was on time to pick the girl up at home, Darla kept receiving notices her daughter was late to school.
She reported her worries to the Ballard High School principal.
“He was concerned but he also said, ‘these are contract people they do not work for Seattle Schools; it's not really our responsibility,’” said Darla. “I was very disturbed by this answer.”
School officials told Darla they too had observed potentially inappropriate behavior. For instance, the girl was always in the front seat when she was dropped off to class.
However, school authorities never alerted Darla about their reservations prior to her inquiry to them.
She was so troubled by the cabbie she installed spyware on her daughter’s computer.
“He was an older man and I knew he was up to no good,” she said.
Darla soon discovered sexually-charged chats between the then 17-year-old and the 30-something taxi driver, even worse she found emails where the man told the girl he had “a friend who’d like to pay you for sex,” Darla recalled.
She believes he was able to groom her daughter during the private trips, “manipulating her and trying to lead her down a trail of prostitution.”
Darla went to the police with the evidence.
“I was very afraid for her. She was very vulnerable and wanting to be loved and here was someone offering friendship and affection,” Darla said. “It is difficult for parents of mentally ill children to have the energy to deal with the myriad issues that we face. You assume this is one thing you don't have to deal with, that you can count on the schools to keep your child safe.”
Police records obtained by KIRO 7 show the driver denied having a sexual relationship with the girl and was adamant he did not try to pimp her. But a detective tied the username and email address from the spyware chats directly to him.
We also uncovered an email police sent in June 2011 to now Assistant Superintendent Pegi McEvoy, writing in part, "This is at least the 3rd recent case I've had involving a Taxi Driver and a child being transported to/from school under contract from SPS. It's pretty concerning."
KIRO 7 investigators dug through thousands of cab complaints and found at least four misconduct investigations since 2010 involving cabbies and SPS students.
We also discovered SPS was warned five years ago, in an audit, that cab usage is "less safe" and "taxi and shuttle drivers are not screened or trained to district standards." (The audit was conducted at the district’s request, by education peers and fellow members of The Council of the Great City Schools.)
Drivers used by the district hold valid taxi licenses and they receive background checks by the city or county; however, SPS does no checking of its own to ensure drivers can be trusted with students.
Darla believes that needs to change, “I think Seattle Schools should be much more proactive if they must use (cabs).”
Auditors agreed back in 2008, recommending the district “reduce or eliminate” taxi usage.
Yet, the practice remains virtually unabated to this day.
Only one of the drivers in our investigation had his license revoked.
Gizachew Chala has been on the run for two years after being charged in 2011 with trying to lure a 15-year-old SPS student to his home to smoke marijuana.
The girl reported the incident to her parents and told police she was “uncomfortable” because “he wanted me to go back to his house!”
While looking into Chala’s background, Seattle police found he was investigated in 2005 after following a 14-year-old girl who was riding a bike.
According to police records, “The girl reported that the man following her in his car kept pace with her, slowing down and speeding up in order to keep alongside her bicycle. She took evasive action by going around the block and he followed her. She reported that the man motioned to her to ‘come here’. The child became frightened and went into a grocery store.”
Inside the store, the girl asked employees to call 911—Chala wasn’t charged in that episode.
But today, there’s still a warrant out for his arrest; he’s wanted on a $50,000 bond for not appearing in court on the luring charge related to the SPS student.
Chala is the only driver with his license revoked. The three other drivers still have valid taxi licenses and were not convicted of a crime, so, we’re not identifying them; including the cabbie involved with Darla’s daughter which she just learned from KIRO 7.
“That is unbelievable to me,” she said.
SPD detectives thought they had a strong case against the driver for promoting prostitution. Since the man is not a school employee, he cannot be held to the same criminal standards regarding his sexual relationship with the girl.
Ultimately, prosecutors declined to press any charges.
“I thought it was a slam dunk; I had the emails. It was well documented,” said Darla.
Beyond the sexual misconduct investigations, we also uncovered the men have troubling driving histories.
Searching through records we found the four drivers investigated for sexual misconduct were also cited at least 28 times for traffic violations, including six tickets for inattentive driving and numerous speeding infractions.
Parents familiar with school pickups aren't surprised.
“I think they're under a lot of pressure to deliver kids quickly,” said Tammy Field.
Most days, Field drives her daughter to Concord Elementary.
About six months ago, a Town Car driver hit the front of her SUV with students still riding in his vehicle.
“I think oh, my god, if you were the parent you'd be more careful; it's obviously not your child that you're driving around,” Field said.
She believes the driver is a risk to students in his back seat and a danger to kids in the loading zone.
Field has a message for Seattle schools. “If they're going to provide transportation they need to make it safer.”
And that's a sentiment shared by Darla. “It seems to me if they're willing to spend an exorbitant amount on cab drivers they could at least checkup.”
The district refused multiple attempts to be interviewed for this story.
Instead, an SPS spokesperson emailed the following statement: “When transporting students, our highest priority is ensuring their safety and security. Whenever an issue comes to our attention regarding any driver providing student transportation services for Seattle Public Schools, that driver is no longer allowed to drive any of our students while the matter is investigated. In the case of cab drivers who are dispatched to transport Seattle Public Schools students, if an issue is reported, that driver’s name is flagged so that he is not given SPS student transportation assignments. It’s important to note that we do not license or regulate the drivers. That is the responsibility of King County, which contracts with the City of Seattle to conduct background checks and fingerprinting.”
Since we first started asking questions about cab usage, SPS has reduced 80 cab routes, placing those children on buses instead.
However, there are still serious signs of disarray within the transportation department. After more than two months, the district still cannot tell us the exact cost of using taxis and Town Cars for homeless students—just one group of children who take daily, intimate rides in private cars.