In tearful testimony before a legislative panel, the parents of a 14-year-old girl killed in a school van accident urged lawmakers Friday to require drivers of those vehicles to meet safety regulations comparable to those for school bus drivers.
"We figured they had the same credentials," said William Berglund, whose daughter Amanda was killed in an accident while riding in a minivan driven by a man who had been smoking marijuana. Had they known otherwise, "We would never have put her in that van," said Berglund's wife, Karen.
Legislators who heard the testimony appeared to be moving toward drafting legislation requiring van drivers to meet some of the standards for school bus drivers.
Those standards would include such criteria as passing drug tests.
Currently, the only requirement for school van drivers is that they have a valid driver's license.
More than 2,000 minivans and passenger vehicles carry special education and other students in Minnesota every year. Known as Type 3 vehicles, they transport up to nine students at a time.
While state officials lack precise figures on accidents involving those vehicles, Public Safety Department records show 142 crashes in 2006 -- all minor -- involving school transport vehicles of 15 seats or fewer, including small buses and minivans.
Amanda Berglund of Scandia was a Forest Lake Schools student riding home in May from a St. Paul school for hearing-impaired students when her van hit the rear of a school bus in rural Washington County.
The crash also killed the driver, Scott Wendt, 30, who was working for Twin City Transportation, which Forest Lake Schools hired to transport students to schools offering special education.
It was later learned that he had been smoking marijuana before the accident and had a record of five speeding tickets in 10 years.
Karen Berglund said her daughter had ridden Forest Lake school buses within the district, but she later was sent for schooling out of the district because Forest Lake couldn't meet her needs.
"And the minute that happened, all safety regulations went out the door," she said.
"We assumed -- the school district hired this company -- she was going to be taken care of the same way she was in previous years," she said, before sobbing.
School bus drivers must submit to pre-employment and random drug and alcohol checks, have no felony convictions and pass physical exams. They also are required to have training on helping students with special needs.
Before Berglund's death, Twin City Transportation didn't routinely test its Type 3 drivers but did test them if there was a reasonable suspicion they were using drugs or alcohol or after they were involved in an accident, said Michael Weidner, an attorney for the firm.
He declined comment after the hearing on whether Wendt had ever been tested.
Weidner said the firm added pre-employment and random drug and alcohol testing for Type 3 drivers after the Berglund accident and supports a state law making such exams mandatory.
After the hearing, Sen. Rick Olseen, DFL-Harris, predicted passage of stricter standards for school van drivers, but said he didn't know whether they would include all the requirements now in place for school bus drivers.
"We're looking at drug and alcohol testing," Olseen said, adding that he and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, would draft a bill.
Pat Doyle • 615-222-12190