Not unlike many other states, Tennessee pupil transportation practices concerning items that can be transported on a school bus are on a slippery slope that may ultimately lead to a major accident. Numerous local school board policies reinforce state and federal rules and regulations that have been carefully enacted to assure that every school bus will always have a clear escape path for emergency evacuation.
Most of the legislation and policy making came in the wake of the 1988 Carrollton, Ky., disaster. We now require bus makers to provide numerous ways to quickly escape a burning school bus. We spent untold hours in Warrensburg, Mo., examining this problem so that we would never again experience another blocked exit during an emergency. We succeeded in our task and now have six or eight ways out of the bus. Diesel-powered buses are far less volatile, and a privileged few can afford fire-resistant upholstery; but, in order for the plan to succeed, it is still imperative that the aisle remains clear.
In the real world, in order to keep the bus aisle clear and maintain an unimpeded route to quick evacuation, school transportation providers will have to convince Tennessee parents that those huge backpacks, wheeled overnight bags and even small suitcases create a major safety hazard.
Over the past few years, our children have been allowed and even encouraged to embrace a fad of designer backpacks and wheeled storage devices. Wal-Mart has devoted an entire section of the store to these absolutely "essential" back-to-school items. We currently promote No Child Left Behind and "no child without a designer backpack."
To experience the full extent of the problem, try sending a letter to each parent explaining that no more backpacks, suitcases or other large items will be allowed on your school bus! Try to get your local school board chairman, who was an eager participant in formulating the safety policy, to initial the letter. A good analogy is a 55-mph speed limit on a major interstate highway that is not accepted by the general public and is not taken seriously by the policy makers. Recently, medical research revealed that a heavy backpack strapped to the shoulders of a second grader is harmful to his or her spine. Concerned parents just got backpacks with wheels.
As leaders and caretakers of school bus safety, we must find a way to convince parents to become concerned with a quick-and-orderly school bus evacuation. We must somehow make the money providers understand that each backpack or suitcase requires the same amount of space as that of a child. With the quickly advancing prospect of seat belts and reduced seating capacity, the space issue promises to fuel a serious funding debate.
Every state has an abundance of written policies and directives that were formulated to address this problem. Everyone recognizes the safety need to control loose papers and the necessity of transporting textbooks, but I seriously doubt that everything being carried onto the bus by students is an educational necessity.
It is easy to say "just enforce the rules," but it is a much more difficult issue in the real transportation environment when an eager first grader is standing at the bus stop with his or her absolutely necessary multi-pocket SpongeBob SquarePants overnight bag on wheels.
Tennessee pupil transportation providers are not complacent or indifferent about this problem, but they are at present losing the battle. It is doubtful that Tennessee is the only state with an occasional blocked exit. Admitting that we have a problem and that we need to be more vigilant can be the first step to eliminating this dangerous practice.
God willing, we will not solve this problem the "Carrollton way."
Larry Riggsbee is executive secretary for the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation. Contact him at email@example.com.