BRADENTON — A school bus driver who failed to alert district officials about a group of middle school girls drinking on the bus earlier this year has resigned after an administrative law judge recommended she be fired.
Ava White-Smith, 44, of Bradenton, had been suspended without pay since May for the Feb. 19 incident in which she reportedly saw the female students sharing an alcoholic beverage while driving them to Just for Girls, an alternative education program for sixth, seventh-and eighth-grade girls in Manatee.
Manatee County School District officials learned the girls had been drinking when they arrived at Just For Girls drunk. They admitted to drinking and one student pulled a half-empty, half-gallon bottle of gin from her backpack after being confronted.
White-Smith’s boss initially asked her to resign, but she refused, saying she never saw students drinking so schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal asked the board to fire her. In May, she requested an administrative hearing to fight the misconduct allegations.
During the July 28 hearing, Tallahassee administrative law Judge William Quattlebaum watched an audio and video recording from the morning ride to school which showed students “surreptitiously” sharing a drink and bouncing from seat to seat on the bus.
“It is inconceivable that the respondent was unaware of the (Just For Girls) school students’ behavior,” he wrote in his 12-page termination recommendation to the school board. “The denial lacked credibility, particularly since the recordings clearly captured her discussion with (Just For Girls) school students about their consumption of the unknown beverage.”
The video also showed White-Smith conversing with the girls, some who did not wear their seat belts — a violation of the district’s transportation policy.
“Some students sang or spoke loudly and inappropriately, one student stood and danced to a lewd song on her music player, two students were excessively affectionate, and a general “party” mood prevailed,” Quattlebaum wrote.
The behavior, district attorney Scott Martin had argued, should have triggered White-Smith to report something odd.
But although she saw the students, Quattlebaum wrote, she never asked what the students were drinking.
“The evidence established that the respondent failed to monitor the activities of students for whom she was responsible while they rode her bus,” Quattlebaum concluded. “Several students riding the respondent’s bus consumed alcohol to the point of intoxication. Many students were not properly seated and were not using the available seat belts.”
White-Smith said she was surprised at the judge’s ruling and said it was in her best interest to resign. She said their singing, laughing and banter were nothing abnormal.
As of Monday, White-Smith, who said she lost her apartment and had to move in with a friend after the allegations, was now driving a bus part-time for Team Success, the former PAL Academy off 13th Avenue East. The charter school that serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade is operated by the school district, but does not use its bus transportation system, district officials said.
On Monday, White-Smith maintained her innocence.
“Piece of mind is priceless. God knows I didn’t know,” she said. “Obviously, I have a clear conscious and the respect I get from Team Success is appreciated,” she said.
District officials accepted White-Smith’s resignation last month, school board Attorney John Bowen said.
The school board during its next regular meeting is slated to approve dismissing the case because of her Sept. 14, resignation.