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PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Manatee bus driver accused of doing nothing as students drink

MANATEE — Something wasn’t right during the Feb. 19 morning ride to school on bus No 611.

As a small group of middle school girls passed a drink between one another they sang, danced and bounced from seat to seat. Some even kissed.

Veteran bus driver Ava White-Smith confronted the girls about their unusual conduct and said, “I don’t know what was in the junk you were drinking, but you were all passing it around like I don’t know what,” according to an administrative complaint filed by the Manatee County School District.

District officials said she didn’t do anything about it and now Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal wants her fired.

The school board will decide Monday whether to terminate her after she allegedly failed to report that the girls consumed alcohol on their way to school.

According to a six-page administrative complaint, White-Smith also engaged in misconduct by failing to protect the students from harmful conditions to their mental and physical health and safety.

An attempt to reach White-Smith at her home Monday failed.

An investigation revealed that during that morning bus route to Just for Girls, an alternative education program for sixth, seventh-and eighth-grade girls in Manatee County, White-Smith witnessed the students share a half-gallon bottle of gin.

One of the girls told White-Smith they were drinking orange juice.

“I know what is going on, baby,” the complaint states White-Smith responded. “That was no orange juice.”

When the bus arrived at school, the girls continued acting “hyper and unlike themselves,” said school district staff Attorney Scott Martin, who filed the complaint.

Just For Girls Director Dee Ralph confronted them about their unusual behavior and they admitted to drinking alcohol on the bus.

One of the students then pulled the half-gallon bottle of gin out of her backpack, the complaint says. School leaders then confronted White-Smith.

“She had indicated she knew something was up with these girls and didn’t take any effort to investigate,” Martin said. “She suspected they were drinking something they shouldn’t have been drinking.”

White-Smith has worked in the district as a bus operator since 1977.

As of this week, White-Smith has received four written reprimands for traffic violations during her employment and not following the Department of Transportation Standard Operating Procedure manual, Martin said.

One reprimand took place after a Feb. 23, incident, when she reportedly made a right-hand turn onto northbound U.S. 301 Boulevard from the left turn lane on westbound 30th Avenue north while the light was red.

As of Monday, White-Smith had not requested an administrative hearing, Martin said. She has until Thursday to do so.

During its regular meeting at the district’s main administrative building on Manatee Avenue on Monday, the school board will decide whether to fire White-Smith, or suspend her without pay and grant her a hearing.