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Elementary school bus driver caught drinking beer while students on board in Chicago

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A school bus driver in Aurora is accused of drinking beer while picking up elementary school students during a morning bus route in the city.

Michelle Passley, 44, of North Aurora, has been charged with two misdemeanor counts of endangering the life or health of a child, Aurora police officials announced during a news conference Tuesday.

A convenience store clerk called East Aurora School District 131 on Nov. 15 and told them he sold beer to a woman and watched her get into a school bus and drive away.

“It’s absolutely brazen,” Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman said. “We have zero tolerance for this when you place children in danger and we want to highlight the fact that but for that convenience store clerk, we’d be none the wiser.”

The First Student Bus Company came to Aurora police on Nov. 15 to report the incident involving Passley, who is one of its drivers. The school district contracts with First Student for busing services and the bus driver is not a district employee, officials said.

East Aurora administrators said they immediately contacted the bus company to investigate the matter and First Student reviewed video from the school bus which shows Passley allegedly drinking from two beer cans while picking up students who attend C.I. Johnson Elementary School, officials said.

After reviewing the video, the company fired Passley. District officials said they contacted Aurora police, the Department of Children and Family Services and informed parents whose children rode the bus route.

Ziman said police were brought in to the situation after it occurred so they were unable to test if Passley was intoxicated. Police detectives opened a criminal investigation and began collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses including the store clerk and looking for video clips, officials said.

Passley picked up the school bus around 6 a.m. Nov. 15 and completed one route before stopping at a Speedway gas station at 948 N. Farnsworth Ave. and purchased two cans of beer, returned to the school bus and drove off, police said. Additional videos show the driver place a beer can into a brown paper bag and drink from it while driving around 32 elementary school children, according to police.

“When we put our children on a school bus in the morning, the idea is that we have placed our kids in the safekeeping of someone who is going to take good care of them,” Ziman said. “This is infuriating to believe someone who is trusted with these children on a daily basis could put them in danger.”

Passley was arrested Monday night and released on $100 bond. She is due in the Aurora Branch Court on Dec. 27.

Police have also contacted the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office to review Passley’s commercial driver’s license. Passley has no prior criminal record.

East Aurora School District officials said they began contracting with First Student when they began busing in the district at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

“Obviously, news of this incident is very disturbing, as the safety of our students is always our number one priority,” district officials said in a statement.

It was unclear how long Passley had been contracted by the bus company or if similar incidents have happened before. Ziman said she is unsure how long First Student retains videos of its drivers.

First Student officials said in a statement that they have a zero-tolerance policy for employees whose actions put others at risk.

“Behavior such as this is completely unacceptable and at odds with what we stand for as a company,” officials said.

Ziman emphasized gratitude to the convenience store clerk who “had the wherewithal to contact the district so they could intervene,” she said.

mejones@chicagotribune.com

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