According to Rick Iannelli, supervisor of transportation for Arlington (Mass.) Public Schools, the most unreasonable thing he ever heard from a parent was: "On Mondays and Wednesdays my son needs to be dropped off at the children's center, on Tuesdays he needs to be dropped at the babysitter's, on Thursdays he has a doctor's appointment and on Fridays he can be dropped at his regular stop. But please wait there for me because I am late sometimes." Most parents are probably not as ignorant as this one of what goes into a successful school bus operation. But on the whole, a large number of parents have only a limited or misguided perception of modern school bus transportation.
Still, parents and the families of riders are the ultimate end customers in the business of safe and efficient student transportation. Regardless of how you feel about their views, as a transportation professional you must consider the ideas, concerns and questions of parents. Only after their perceptions are understood and addressed, can stronger communication and customer service be attained.
SBF interviewed parents of school bus riders from across the nation to find out how they feel about student transportation. Here is a collection of their common and often insightful opinions.
Why no seat belts?
As you might expect, the most common question asked by parents about school bus transportation is: "Why don't the buses have seat belts?" Even after being told about the inconclusive results of seat belt research and the advantages of compartmentalization, parents are reluctant to settle for any explanation that doesn't involve the installation of child restraint systems.
"Overall, the school bus experience has been a good one for our family," says Martha Sidebottom, a parent from Atlanta. However, she adds, "in 20 years, no one ever took the time to explain to me why seat belts on school buses were never considered."
The seat belt issue is further complicated in the eyes of parents by the fact that many states have stringent regulations regarding seat belts on passenger vehicles. Says John Farinacci, father of two students at Boone County School District in Florence, Ky., "Kentucky law requires that all drivers and passengers in cars wear seatbelts, but not on school buses. This simply does not make sense to me."
Unfortunately, even when parents do have a good understanding of the obstacles involved in installing seat belts, they often still think they are the best option for safety. "I know it's impractical and certainly costly to bus makers and bus lines to put seat belts on school buses," says Robert Sandoval, a Chicago father whose son attends Crestwood School District 142. "But it seems odd that they aren't at least debated."
Ultimately, parents' concerns over seat belt use depend on their access to information about the advantages and disadvantages of seat belts. Gunilla Godebu, a mother of two children who attend Bend-La Pine School District in Bend, Ore., says she used to want seat belts on her children's school buses — until she became aware of the facts. "I believe parents must get informed by contacting their own district's bus service," she says. Operations can help, she adds, by holding bus safety seminars for parents where seat belts are discussed.
Who is driving my kid?
If the seat belt controversy is the most common complaint heard by parents, then issues about the skill and trustworthiness of drivers and other transportation personnel is probably a close second.
"You have to be a fairly skilled driver to safely operate a bus," says Sandoval. "That is why the driver is probably the weakest link in bus safety. The job doesn't pay enough to attract and maintain a genuinely high-caliber staff of bus drivers."
Farinacci thinks that school bus drivers are generally well trained. But there is an area of school bus driver training he would like to see emphasized more. "I really think school bus drivers should receive more medical training or at least have more knowledge about how to help an injured child in the event of an accident."
These parents are likely unaware that school bus drivers receive more training than do most other commercial vehicle operators. But it's not just the drivers whose skill many parents question.
Susanna Richt, a mother of three students at New York City Public Schools, says she is not confident in the qualifications of the people scheduling bus routes. "My husband is employed as a professional scheduler, and I know it's not an easy task. So I don't think some of these people, especially secretaries, can handle these responsibilities competently."
Some parents feel that the root of all doubt about employee capability comes from a widespread public distrust for strangers. "Ask any parent who do you trust with your children and that parent will say, "Not too many people'," says Jim Somers, a father of two from La Canada, Calif. "The problem as I see it is that, unlike in my day when I think people were generally more sane, I would not trust my child to a bus driver today." He says that one way to improve the trust level is to improve drug-testing policies for drivers. "Every driver must submit, or they can look for work elsewhere," he says.
Where is the bus stop?
Many parents also feel strongly about problems related to the bus stop, including loading and unloading safety and the trip to and from the stop. Parents have several main complaints. The first is the distance from the bus stop to a child's house.
Sidebottom says that, with a big family, it's impossible to take each kid to school individually, so she relies on them getting between home and the bus stop by themselves. "One year, my children had to walk more than a quarter of a mile to the stop, and I was always worried about their safety just getting there." She recommends organizing a system for parents to rotate mornings in which they walk their children to the bus stop.
Another major problem parents have is that the bus doesn't always arrive at the same time each day, forcing children to wait for it in potentially harsh conditions. Ron Rennells, whose children go to Burbank (Calif.) Unified School District, says that the weather can be rough on his kids if they have to wait for very long. "Last year, in at least five instances the bus driver was an hour late picking up my daughter, leaving her standing out in the middle of the winter before the sun was up."
Lincoln Bramlage has three children who go to school at the Ottawa-Glandorf School District in Ottawa, Ohio. His biggest beef is loading and unloading danger. "The real concern in my mind about school bus safety is not related to when kids are riding the bus but when they get off and run into traffic," he says. Bramlage thinks that higher-paid drivers and better routing are the best ways to combat this problem.
Often parents think that it is too difficult to get school districts to listen to them when they voice concerns about bus stop safety. Godebu says she had a big problem getting a bus stop changed to accommodate her family after they moved to a house near a busy intersection. "It was an ordeal for the first few days of school because I couldn't reach anyone at the bus terminal; they were too busy," she says. Godebu's best advice to transportation departments is to have good routing flexibility and more contact with parents before the start of school.
Is it safe onboard?
Managing student interaction on the school bus is one of the most challenging aspects of school transportation. There are only a few instances during the school day when children of different ages must be thrown together at once. The bus ride is one of these instances, and the strong propensity for misbehavior that results is another common parent complaint.
"The troublemakers on the bus are almost always the older students who sit in the back where the bus driver is less likely to see them," says Shelly Warner, mother of four students at Dekalb County School District in Tucker, Ga. "Making the older students sit in front and maybe designating a responsible student as an onboard patrol could help keep better order," she says.
Mary Kay Ruben, a mother of three private school students in Allentown, Pa., says that her five-year-old son was bullied by an 8th grader. "An administrator, who I contacted about the incident," she says, "gave the 8th grader a week off the bus. But our son lived in fear the rest of the year." Ruben says better administrative attention to school bus discipline is needed.
Sean Southwell, whose two children will be enrolling in Phoenix School District this fall, says that administrative discretion is important. "We told an administrator about a school bus problem at our last district, and he called the other families who live in our neighborhood and told them that we had complained. This does not create good neighborhood relationships for our children or for us," he says.
Parents frequently cite bus monitors, video surveillance, tougher disciplinary procedures and better-trained drivers as good solutions for onboard misbehavior. But Kimberly Hinds, a mother whose children attend school in Cleburne (Texas) Independent School District, says that surprise observational visits by supervisors would make the bus ride much safer. These visits would keep drivers attentive, while also helping to deter bullying and fighting among students, she says.
Dorette Amir, whose children go to Desert Sands Unified School District in Indio, Calif., says that the hot, dry weather can sometimes exacerbate discipline problems with students on the school bus. She has a simple solution, with a bit of a price tag — "Put air conditioning on all the buses."
What can you do for me?
Overall, parents feel that as taxpayers, they have the right to consistently demand better quality school bus service. While many make unreasonable requests, some hold realistic views about how school bus operations could be improved.
Sidebottom, for example, says that driver carelessness, especially when young children are left on school buses, must be eliminated. "Many of these problems have arisen before drivers' pasts have been checked out," she says. "Mandatory criminal background checks would really help."
Godebu agrees, but says that communication is the most important factor in eliminating the little mistakes. "Increased communication between bus drivers and their supervisors would alleviate a lot of problems," she says. Many parents' concerns could be prevented if management was more aware of what drivers are going through on a daily basis.
More funding is a popular request, but Bramlage says he isn't so sure how much it would help to put more money into bus services. "I would like to see one study that shows a positive correlation between the amount of money you dump into school-related projects and calculable positive outcomes," he says. To achieve this, he adds, more media and government attention to school safety is necessary.
Farinacci has a similar idea. "Like airline travel, we need to monitor this mode of transportation more closely," he says. "School districts need to work with the government to set up mandatory quarterly checks on drivers' efficiency and other school bus safety standards."