Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

TOP STORY > >Bus driver upset with sentence

Leader senior staff writer

“This is bull—,” Robin Clark told her friends in court Monday moments after she copped a no-jail plea to drunken school bus driving and three related charges.

Little Rock Traffic Judge Vic Fleming sentenced the former Cabot school bus driver to pay a $1,300 fine, to report weekends to the Pulaski County Detention Center to perform 90 days of community service, to attend an alcohol treatment program and to surrender forever her commercial driver’s license.

Little Rock Patrolman Ron Matney, Prosecutor David Howkey and Theresa Belew, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, all confirmed Clark’s aside to three friends who accompanied her to court. She could have been sentenced to serve a jail term of as long as one year.

Cabot students had been attending a debate tournament at Little Rock Central High School on Oct. 27, 2007, and Clark was preparing to drive them back to Cabot around 9:30 p.m. when teachers and other drivers noticed her erratic behavior.

A teacher refused to let Clark take the wheel and the bus remained parked at LRCH, according to the Cabot School District.

“Students were on the bus, but the teacher had already made the decision to not allow the driver to leave the scene. She (the teacher) contacted the police before the bus left Central High School,” according to Cabot Superintendent Tony Thurman said.

A Little Rock police officer was called and performed a field sobriety test on Clark.

A district administrator transported the students back to Cabot.

Clark was taken into custody.

Once at the jail, Clark became increasingly angry and threatened to sue and “have jobs” of everyone involved, the report reads.

At the jail, her blood alcohol level was .073. She grabbed her ticket and attempted to destroy it, according to the prosecutor.

Her field Breathalyzer test result was .088—twice the allowable limit for a commercial driver.

Clark, wearing a teal dress, pearls and high heels, refused comment to the press and her entourage ran interference with limited success in an attempt to foil photographers.

Existence of an onboard video and electronic record of bus speed and breaking information may have played a part in Clark’s last- minute decision to negotiate a plea.

Thurman said he had seen the onboard videotape in question and “I did feel like there was some evidence on the tape that probably had a lot to do with (her accepting) the plea.”

Merged with her driving-under-the-influence charge were a charges of harassment, tampering with evidence and child endangerment.

Before imposing sentence, Fleming attempted in vain to get her to apologize, to admit her mistake and to say what she was doing to turn her life around, but she either failed to understand or refused to take responsibility for her actions.

“In a mitigation or allocution statement, I’m looking for something to hang my hat on (a rationalization for accepting a plea),” said Fleming.

“I’m not hearing ‘I’m sorry I screwed up,’” Fleming told her. “I’m hearing you blame everyone else.”

She told Fleming that she had one six-ounce cup of wine and two tablespoons of cough medicine four hours before she was tested and she stood by that account even though Fleming told her the math and chemistry were wrong.

He asked Clark, who had two prior DUI convictions, what she had drunk leading to her second conviction.

“A beer,” she said.

“How much?” Fleming asked.

“Three or four,” she said.

“Are you addicted to alcohol?” Fleming asked. She said she wasn’t.

According to Fleming’s sentence, Clark will not be required to stay overnight in jail, but must report Saturdays and Sundays, more often if she wants, until her 90 days of community service is completed.

Belew said she was disappointed that Clark didn’t take responsibility for her actions, but she thought the sentence was appropriate. “Our big concern is always to look for these to be teachable moments,” she said.

“We learned a lot from this incident,” said Cabot Superintendent Tony Thurman. “I’m glad no one was hurt and the teacher handled it well.”

“She’ll never be an employee of the district again,” he said.

Thurman said the district had worked with the state legislature to try to close loopholes that could allow drivers with DUI convictions to get or keep commercial drivers’ licenses.

His district now does background checks not only through the state Education Department, but also through a private consulting firm. That’s true not only for bus drivers but for volunteers in the schools.

Clark, who had had previous DUIs under other names, worked without a background check as a substitute driver for the Cabot District, and then was hired full time. Since the incident, Cabot has changed the way it checks backgrounds before hiring drivers, Belew said.

“She’s an alcoholic in denial,” said prosecutor Howkey.

“There’s nothing more pitiful than an old drunk,” he said. “They’ve learned to believe their lies.”

He said he hoped that the humiliation of reporting to the jail to perform community service would get Clark’s attention.