The school bus driver arrested Wednesday on charges of driving drunk when he brought a student from the Perkins School for the Blind home was hired by the bus company despite a record that includes seven prior license suspensions and two previous arrests on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Michael A. Tantillo, 41, of Leominster also lacked the proper pupil transport license.
It was the second time in 10 months that the company, Ride-Rite Medi-Van Inc. in Leominster, has raised concerns by allowing an unlicensed operator to drive a school bus. The company is now facing suspension or revocation of its school transportation license plates.
Ride-Rite was issued a warning from the Registry of Motor Vehicles at a January hearing for allowing a driver lacking a school pupil transport certificate to drive a school bus last December. The Registry found the company at fault, but issued the warning because Ride-Rite had no history of violations.
In a Jan. 9 letter from Registrar Rachel Kaprielian, Ride-Rite’s owners were warned that “any subsequent violations for allowing an unlicensed operator to operate a school pupil transport vehicle shall be forwarded to the Driver Control Unit for a hearing on whether there is just cause for the suspension or revocation of your School Pupil Normal registrations.”
A hearing on Ride-Rite’s latest violation has been scheduled for Nov. 7, said Registry spokeswoman Sara Lavoie.
A woman who answered the phone at Ride-Rite’s office in Leominster said no one was available to discuss the matter.
On Wednesday, Tantillo picked up a 15-year-old student who is blind from Perkins in Watertown about 4 p.m. and was supposed to drive the boy to his home in Clinton, about an hour away, said Clinton Police Chief Mark Laverdure. Instead, police said, Tantillo drove around drunk for several hours with the boy on the bus.
The boy’s parents called police when their son did not return home at the usual time. Clinton police called Tantillo several times, but he either hung up or ignored the calls, Laverdure said. Tantillo was arrested when he eventually arrived at the boy’s home.
Tantillo was employed by Ride-Rite and allowed to drive despite his lack of a proper license and a long history of driving violations. Tantillo’s driving record dates to 1988 and includes two prior arrests on suspicion of operating under the influence, seven prior license suspensions, multiple speeding citations, and possession of illegal drugs.
He was arrested Wednesday for a third time on a charge of driving drunk and had his license suspended for an eighth time for refusing a blood alcohol test, police said.
Tantillo was ordered held on $50,000 cash bail at his arraignment Thursday at Clinton District Court.
He is charged with kidnapping, operating under the influence of liquor, reckless endangerment of a child, and child endangerment while operating under the influence of liquor, according to Clinton police and court reports.
A plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf. He is scheduled for a pretrial hearing Nov. 19.
Michael J. Bailey, the court-appointed attorney for Tantillo, did not return a call requesting comment.
A call to Tantillo’s home was not returned.
In September, the Registry denied Tantillo’s application for a school pupil transport certificate because of information that appeared in his criminal background check, Lavoie said.
When Perkins students wait for buses to pick them up, they are accompanied by a staff member until the bus arrives, said the school’s spokeswoman, Marilyn Rea Beyer.
“On Wednesday afternoon when this particular student was ready to leave school, the staff person who knows the student very well identified the driver as the usual driver who picks this student up,” Rea Beyer said. “[Tantillo] was not behaving in any unusual way when he picked up our student.”
Perkins Superintendent Dorinda Rife said that it was an isolated incident and that the school employed all of its telephone contact protocols immediately after being notified by the boy’s family that he had not arrived home. She sent a note to all the parents informing them of the incident.
Upon learning of Wednesday’s incident, Clinton school officials fired Ride-Rite as one of its contractors, said Daniel Gale, the district’s business manager. The School Department is responsible for student transportation to Perkins.
“We assumed they had people with proper licenses and proper background checks,” Gale said of Rite-Ride.
Sean T. Bucci, the student’s father, told the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester that he blames the School Department for placing his son in danger.
“I’m livid; I am so angry I can hardly think,” Bucci said. “This superintendent chose to put my kid on a bus with a known drunk. He took a roll of the dice with my kid.”
School Superintendent Terrance P. Ingano said that while he was aware of and concerned about serious driving offenses against the driver, it was the boy’s mother who insisted the driver stay on.
Furthermore, Ingano said it was up to the van company to run background checks on the driver. He told the Telegram & Gazette that the School Department, upon hearing talk about the driver’s background, conducted its own criminal history check and found at least three serious driving offenses. He then interviewed Tantillo, went over each offense with him, and warned the mother.
“Apparently they [Tantillo and the student] made a little connection — he’s a terrific kid — and the mother did not want to change anything,” Ingano told the Telegram & Gazette.
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