MANATEE — School bus driver Ava White-Smith said if she knew students on her bus route were drinking alcohol on Feb. 19, she would have immediately reported the matter to school officials.
“My children, I would never uphold them in their wrong. The facts are all skewed,” White-Smith said Tuesday, referring to an administrative complaint recently filed against her by Manatee County School District officials.
The complaint alleges White-Smith, 44, witnessed a group of middle school girls “share and consume a beverage” while driving them to Just for Girls, an alternative education program for sixth, seventh- and eighth-grade girls in Manatee County.
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White-Smith, a 13-year veteran bus driver from Bradenton, has been on paid administrative leave since April 27 — the day after she said her boss asked her to resign.
So schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal wants her fired.
On Tuesday, she said she plans to request an administrative hearing and fight the misconduct allegations.
“Anyone who knows me, if they thought I knew, they would tell the truth,” she said. “They know I’d go off and would lose it. They know what the consequences would be. I have a very good relationship with my kids. It’s way more than a job to me. You can’t be a bus driver and not get attached to these kids.
“I laugh with them and I cry with them, but at the same time they know when I’m serious,” she said. “Their health and their safety, they know I don’t joke about that at all.”
School officials learned the girls had been drinking when they arrived at Just For Girls drunk, the complaint states. They admitted to drinking and one student pulled a half-gallon bottle of gin from her backpack after being confronted.
According to a district investigation, the students were sharing a drink and singing, dancing, kissing and bouncing from seat to seat on the bus.
That type of behavior should have triggered White-Smith to report something odd, according to district staff attorney Scott Martin.
But White-Smith said their actions were nothing abnormal.
“It’s not unusual for them to sing, or laugh or make a joke. It was girls laughing and talking about their weekend plans. Had they been quiet, that would have been the only thing that made me think something was going on. If I had smelled alcohol or seen a bottle, I would have called ahead on the radio to alert someone.”
Martin also said White-Smith made comments about what the girls were drinking.
But she says she was simply joshing with the girls.
“It’s on video, you can hear everything and tell I’m joking around,” she said.
When her boss called her and told her the students had been drinking on her bus, White-Smith said that she was in disbelief.
“I freaked out, was completely shocked,” she said. “I told them I didn’t smell any alcohol. There was never a visible bottle of alcohol. What I thought they were drinking was juice.”
The school board on Monday will decide whether to fire her or suspend her without pay and grant her an administrative hearing.
Until then, White-Smith is searching for an attorney.
According to the district’s student code of conduct, anyone caught drinking on a bus faces a potential 10-day school suspension.