After implementing a zero-tolerance policy four years ago, the average number of incidents dropped to less than one. And, Despenza points out, his fleet has also grown substantially since then.
Salazar’s operation also holds to a zero-tolerance policy. Earlier this year, a driver was fired for leaving a 4-year-old on a bus for a few hours in hot weather. The driver had been with the district for two decades.
Salazar says that in some cases, a driver could be transferred to food service or the custodial department, but he or she “wouldn’t drive a bus anymore here.”
Oram takes a similar tack. “To me, it’s serious enough that it warrants dismissal,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that “maybe drivers don’t understand the potential consequences: loss of job, child endangerment charges, negative publicity.”
Jones has mixed feelings on discipline in these cases. “Is it appropriate to fire someone after 20 years of experience and this happens once?” he says. “The driver feels as bad as anyone.”
Factors such as how long the child was left alone and whether he or she was injured should be considered, Jones says.
Abramson offers another variable. “The supervisor might decide to suspend the driver, but [if] it goes to court, they might ultimately not have a choice but to fire the driver, especially if that’s one of the things [the parents are] suing for,” he says. “A lot of times when it gets to litigation, they’re looking for money and the driver’s head on a platter.”
Goby says that the driver often bears too much of the blame when a child is left on a bus.
“If the supervisor doesn’t check that the driver is performing these responsibilities, where you need 100 percent compliance, then the supervisor should be disciplined,” Goby says.
Goby says that while drivers should also be disciplined in some manner if they forget to check their bus, he feels that firing a driver for this type of incident is more to placate parents than it is to prevent it from happening again at the operation.
At Cecil County, Markwardt responds to these incidents on a case-by-case basis. “We look at the driver, we look at the circumstances — we look at everything we can — and then we make a determination,” Markwardt says.
Navigating the wake
Dealing with the parents of a child who was left on the bus is likely one of the less desirable situations a transportation manager might be faced with.
According to Sumner County’s Riggsbee, the key is to “apologize, apologize, apologize. When you’re talking to a parent, you just don’t have an excuse.”
Salazar agrees. “You have to understand where the parents are coming from, because it’s their kid,” he says. “You’re all about safety, and one of your drivers has just broken one of the biggest rules by leaving a child on the bus.”
Salazar suggests keeping the parents informed as the situation develops, but he doesn’t recommend telling them the driver’s fate.
“Let them know that you’ve done an investigation and that you took the appropriate action with the driver,” he says. “But don’t tell them what you actually did. If the driver was fired, the parents will eventually find out.”
Salazar also suggests working with the district communications officer, if there is one, because he or she can help in handling the media if necessary.
Jones says that part of the difficulty of responding to parents is in trying to earn back their trust.
“It’s a loss of confidence in school transportation,” he says. “Parents might decide to take their kids off the bus, but that puts them at more risk than the occasional kid being left on the bus. The school bus is still the safest way to get a kid to school.”
In the case of young Joanne Jamison, her mother, Maggie, decided to put her back on the bus the week after she was left stranded.
After the incident, the driver and an official from the bus company called to apologize. “They’re doing everything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Maggie says. “I just want to make sure my child is safe. If I felt that she wasn’t, I’d never put her back on that bus.”
Still, Maggie told her daughter that if she does find herself alone on the bus again, she should scream and honk the horn.
To help assuage any fears Joanne may have had, an attendant began sitting with her on the bus and meeting her outside of the school.
Maggie admits that when the driver called, she didn’t initially handle it well. “I got a little snappy with her at first,” she says. But Maggie says she soon realized that she should try to make something positive come out of what started as a troubling experience.
“Buses will always take our kids to school, and that’s important,” Maggie says. “It’s important for me to work with these people. But I didn’t have that attitude at first.”
'It' happened to me!
Carol Boucher, a school bus driver since 1999 in Green Bay, Wis., loves her job and takes it seriously. For her passion, she’s earned the nickname “Bus Nut” and has won her company’s top driver honor, the Presidential Award. She describes herself as conscientious and a rule follower. Clearly, she’s not a driver one would expect to miss a sleeping passenger. Here, Boucher recounts how “it” happened to her one day last year:
I never thought it would. Didn’t see how it possibly could. I check my bus for sleeping children before I ever pull away from school. Here’s how things went awry.
Noon route. Early Childhood. Only six students. There’s usually one or two sleeping when I get to school. I wake them up, get their backpacks on them and have them stand in line to wait for the two teachers to come out and get them.
On this day, there was a car in my spot in front of the school doors, so I had to hang back about one bus length. The teachers always come out to the bus, and we talk about who rode in, who didn’t, etc. But because I wasn’t close — and it was cold — they more or less stood by the door and motioned for the kids to get inside.
I sent them all (I thought); even the two who are usually sleeping were awake this day. I walked back to check my bus and found a hat, probably in the third or fourth seat. I grabbed it and quickly ran to the school doors before they closed (they lock at that point). I delivered the hat and then got back on the bus.
Because of the way everything went — the activity and all — it felt like I checked my bus. So I got in my seat and drove home. Just as I pulled up in front of my house (a 12-minute trip), I saw a head pop up in the seat! I wasn’t even thinking it was a student. Couldn’t be. I just didn’t know. It scared the heck right out of me! I yelled, “Who is it?” (Actually, that part is funny in retrospect.)
Then I realized who it was, so off I went back to school. I radioed base and told them that I had found a sleeping student and was returning to school. Proper procedure, no questions asked — they knew it was only a few minutes since I dropped off.
The point is, it can happen to anyone. I am always so careful. I would never think of not checking my bus or cutting any corners, but still it happened. Thank God for the new Child Check-Mate systems we have. I hadn’t gotten to the point of turning my bus off when I saw him, but it could have saved us both. I would still have had to walk to the back of the bus to disarm the system before I could shut the ignition off, and I would have seen him then. But this just really scared me!
The next day, after I checked at school, I pulled over out of the driveway and checked again!