When Joanne Jamison woke up alone on a parked school bus, she thought she was in big trouble.
The 7-year-old had fallen asleep on the way to summer school in late June, but her driver and an attendant failed to find her before disembarking the bus.
Joanne immediately realized she was missing class, but she didn’t know what to do. The youngster, whose mother, Maggie, describes her as very quiet and shy, believed that she wasn’t allowed to open the door. So she waited, hoping someone would come back soon.
Fortunately, the bus was parked under a tree, and Joanne didn’t feel that it got too hot. Eventually, she drifted back to sleep. About three hours later, she was back at the bus stop where the fateful trip had begun. No one else was aware of what had happened until that evening, when Maggie asked Joanne how her day at school was.
After Joanne shrugged, Maggie asked again. Eventually, Joanne explained, “I didn’t go to school today. I’m in big trouble.”
Unfortunately, young pupils are left on school buses at what some call an alarming rate, often in more perilous circumstances.
In extremely cold or hot temperatures, a parked bus can be a dangerous place for a child. And when a young passenger is able to get out of the bus, disaster could await her as she tries to find her way in the bus yard or the streets beyond.
In some cases, special-needs students, who are often the most vulnerable and sometimes non-verbal, are stranded for hours until someone realizes they’re missing.
These incidents seem to appear every week in news reports across the nation. And certainly many others elude the eyes of the media.
“I would suspect that for every one or two that make the newspapers, there are three times as many as that,” says Larry Riggsbee, associate director of Sumner County Schools in Gallatin, Tenn.
While no official count is kept, many school transportation officials say that the problem is widespread and manifested much more frequently than it should be, especially given the industry’s unparalleled safety record.
“Even one incident is a big problem,” says Allan Jones, director of pupil transportation for the state of Washington.
Ronald Despenza, director of the transportation department at Clark County School District in Las Vegas, says that every transportation director he has spoken with in recent years has experienced the problem at his or her operation.
However, other officials don’t see the phenomenon as being as ominous as some would make it out to be. Considering that about 24 million children in the U.S. ride school buses daily, if one is left behind per day, the percentage is minuscule.
“I don’t think it’s a big problem, but it does draw a lot of attention from the media,” says Rafael Salazar, director of transportation at Northside Independent School District in Helotes, Texas.
Neal Abramson, transportation director at Santa Monica-Malibu (Calif.) Unified School District, says that there are years when it seems that more children are being left on buses than in other years. But, like Salazar, he doesn’t believe it’s an immense problem overall. Still, both agree that these incidents, when they do surface, can be dangerous.
Regardless of whether one believes an industry-wide crisis is afoot, no pupil transporter wants to be faced with the array of consequences that one of these unfortunate events could entail. In addition to the aforementioned dangers that a stranded student could face, consider these troubling effects:
Careers can be ruined. In many cases in which a child is left on a bus, the driver is fired. If it’s a rookie, one might argue that the person was probably not cut out for the job anyway. But, surprisingly, these incidents often involve drivers who have been on the job for many years and have clean records.
It may become a legal matter. The district, the contractor and the driver may be hit with a lawsuit. Also, the driver could face criminal charges.
It’s likely to make the local news. Parents often contact the media when their child is subjected to this type of neglect. The ensuing coverage will not be flattering for the driver, the supervisor, the bus operation, the district and so on.
Trust — as well as riders — may be lost. The child could develop a fear of the school bus and refuse to ride it anymore. Parents might conclude that the bus isn’t safe for their children and pull them off. In actuality, this will mean that more kids will be taking less-safe forms of transportation — whether it’s riding in Mom’s minivan, pedaling their own bikes or otherwise — to and from school.
It’s imperative, then, that every student transportation operation have measures in place to prevent pupils from being left on the bus.
Reasons for leaving
If every school bus driver thoroughly checked the seats and floor of his or her bus after every run, no child would ever be left behind. The issue seems simple enough. Yet when one delves into the reasons that the checking process is forgotten or botched, it becomes clear that the matter is more complicated.
Many transportation managers say that drivers are often in a hurry to get off the bus, which leads to the bus not being checked thoroughly or at all for sleeping students.
Bob Markwardt, supervisor of transportation at Cecil County Public Schools in Elkton, Md., says that a driver may be in a rush to get to a doctor appointment, to return home to care for a sick son or daughter or simply to end the workday. He says that bus drivers, like other people, often have a lot on their minds.
Despenza of Clark County says that another factor is complacency. “If you walk to the back of the bus a hundred times and don’t find any kids, you can have a tendency to get complacent and just assume that no kid is there,” he says.
Carol Boucher, a driver in Green Bay, Wis., says she believes that most school bus drivers are conscientious. However, some who might not carry out their duty to check the bus assume that stranding a child is “not going to happen to them. They have that teenage mentality,” she says.
Additionally, these incidents are often attributed to a change in the driver’s routine. Jones points to an example from a Washington operation in which a driver pulling into the bus lot noticed a person acting oddly. Upon parking the bus, the driver immediately went to report the stranger, forgetting to check the bus. As luck would have it, there happened to be a child still on board.
Even a momentary distraction can lead to a child being stranded. Markwardt shares a story from his operation in which a driver was checking her bus when another bus began backing in next to hers. The activity caused her to look up briefly — just enough time to miss a student who was on the floor underneath a seat. Also working against the driver’s efforts was the fact that it was a stormy day, so the bus was darker than usual.
Sometime after the driver had left, the child got off the bus and wandered down a road until a passerby stopped to help.
Boucher herself experienced a disruption that caused her to miss a sleeping child before she left a school drop-off (see sidebar on pg. 28 for full story). Fortunately, the youngster popped up before Boucher had parked the bus at her home. And Boucher’s routine included another check before disembarking the vehicle.
Taking a leading role
School bus drivers are among the most highly trained and professional drivers on the road. They are not, of course, perfect. So expecting them to never forget to check their bus without having any backup measures in place is a gamble.
“Anytime you have a human system, you’re going to have some errors made,” Jones notes. He says that managers need to ensure that drivers are given solid training and constant reminders on the subject. Beyond that, there should be an electronic or manual device to verify that the checking is done.
Dale Goby, a consultant and former executive transportation director at Detroit Public Schools, says that “although the driver is the employee most responsible, the supervisor must make certain there is sufficient redundancy in the system to make it failsafe.”
At Detroit Public Schools, Goby required each of the five terminal managers to pledge that their buses were being checked by signing a document and faxing it to the central transportation office.
“Only then did we get 100 percent compliance and not have incidents,” Goby says.
Gerald Oram, transportation coordinator at North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District in Annandale, N.J., offers a similar stance: “You need to be out of your seat from a management standpoint.”
Oram says that drivers are more likely to skip post-trip inspections if they know that a manager isn’t checking up on them. He recommends “going out into the yard and being visible when buses are coming in.”
Markwardt has found a solution to satisfy those who are anxious to get off the bus because they feel that their workday is over. His operation is adding five minutes of pay for post-trip checking. “So you can’t say that you’re not getting paid for it,” Markwardt says.