Connie Chavis assumed her 5-year-old daughter, Brittany, would be safe at her school bus stop. After all, through the window of her mobile home, located about 200 yards from the pickup point, Connie could keep an eye on her daughter until Bus 134 pulled up and whisked the kindergartner off to West Hoke Elementary School in rural North Carolina. Connie's assumption - along with her daughter - died early this year. On Jan. 7, Brittany was kidnapped while she waited for her bus. Connie did not witness the abduction, having interrupted her vigil at the window to go to the bathroom. When she returned, her daughter was gone. She thought the bus had picked her up, but neighbors told her that Brittany had been taken by a man driving a brown pickup truck. A day later, Brittany's lifeless body was discovered in the woods about two miles from her home. Police say she had been sexually molested. At press time, law enforcement agencies were still hunting for Brittany's killer. They had no suspects. Is safety an illusion?
This incident illustrates the false sense of security that many parents have in allowing young children, especially kindergartners and preschoolers, to walk alone to their bus stops. Many school districts require a parent or guardian to accompany young children to the bus stop and to meet them at the end of the school day as well. But some districts, like the one in Hoke County, N.C., do not. In this case, a tougher policy might have prevented a tragedy. "My opinion is that all parents of kindergartners through second graders, and up to the fourth grade depending on the type of areas they walk, need to be at the stop during loading and unloading times," says Dick Fischer, a school transportation consultant in Aurora, Colo. Otherwise, Fischer says, a jury might be inclined to find a school district negligent in the event of a bus stop abduction. "At the least, there would probably be contributory negligence," he says. "The liability might depend heavily on what protective procedures and policies were in place and how closely they were adhered to." Fischer says it's important that school districts have a written policy on bus stop procedures. "If you don't have written policies and procedures and you don't teach drivers how to follow them, then you can be up a creek without a paddle real fast," he says. For example, what happens if school is closed early and the child will arrive at the bus stop a half hour before the usual time? In a rural area of Ohio, a driver made the mistake of allowing a 7-year-old boy to get off the bus, despite the fact that the boy's father's truck was not in the driveway. The boy told the driver he had a key to the house, although the driver never asked to see it. The boy was later killed when the back window fell and snapped his neck as he tried to enter the house without the key. "It's a perfect example of what can happen if a driver's early and doesn't have written guidelines on how to handle the situation," Fischer says. Safety in numbers
In San Jose, Calif., police are warning children to walk to school in groups if they're not accompanied by parents. This warning comes in the wake of the kidnapping and sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl who was walking to her bus stop on Feb. 2. The attack left the girl traumatized, but police say her physical injuries were not serious. The assault was the sixth in a recent rash of attacks on young girls, many of whom were abducted while they were walking to meet the bus. Dee Presley, transportation director at San Jose Unified School District, says the school district has responded to the attacks by recommending to parents that they escort their children to the bus stops or have them walk together in groups. "In the 11 or 12 years that I've been here, this is the first time something like this has happened," Presley says. "I've noticed more parents at bus stops lately, which is good." The district does not require parents or guardians to meet kindergartners at the bus stop. "Most kindergartners are met at the bus stop by parents, but you'd be surprised at how many aren't," Presley says. She adds, however, "There are some children that know how to get from the bus stop to their homes, especially if they can see the house from the stop." Some parents have requested their children be moved to alternative bus stops, especially those with a greater number of students. In one case, a change was made after a girl who waited alone for the bus was repeatedly harassed. Presley agreed to move her to a bus stop farther from her home. "I'm not sure it was the best solution," Presley says, "but at least she had some friends at the other stop." Mary Becker, a school bus driver at Westerly (R.I.) School Department, says she has modified a route to accommodate two students who were being harassed before she picked them up on her morning route. "I changed their stops to in front of each house," she says. "In this day and age, you can't be too careful of a child's life and well-being." Like all good drivers, Becker notes suspicious cars or people near the drop-off points and will act with caution if she believes that danger exists. "If there is a way to deliver the students door to door, I will, even if I am late for my next run," she says. "If not, I call a parent to come meet all the students and escort them home. Or I call the police." Who's responsible?
"It's a gray area as to who's responsible for the child between home and the school bus stop," says Jackie Laurie, a spokeswoman for the Ontario School Bus Association, which represents public and private school bus carriers in the Canadian province. However, Laurie says parents should not shirk their responsibility for the welfare of their children. "If my child is 5 years old, I am not going to let him walk to the bus stop by himself, and I cannot expect him to walk from the bus stop to home by himself," she says. "It's inconceivable." Woody FitzMaurice, Vancom/TransPar's general manager of pupil transportation for Chicago Public Schools, agrees. "We all have responsibility, but the primary responsibility for the child's safety at the bus stop is the parents'," he says. "You cannot manage and run a transportation system if the parents have no responsibility for their children." FitzMaurice says school districts routinely inform parents of the division of responsibility, although few require parents to sign a statement to that effect. "As a parent myself, I just cannot abdicate that responsibility to somebody else," he says. "The moment that a school district assumes total responsibility for a child from the time he leaves his house, you're forcing, for liability reasons, every child to be picked up at the front door. It's a horrendously large issue." FitzMaurice says nearly all school districts require an adult to accompany a pre-kindergarten child to the bus stop and meet him there after classes. Some parents, however, believe that their 3- or 4-year-olds can walk two blocks by themselves to meet the bus. "Not if they're getting one of my buses, they're not," FitzMaurice says. "There has to be a line drawn somewhere." Parents provide buffer
Ellen Nelson, terminal manager for Vancom/Laidlaw in South Holland, Ill., says the policy that an adult meet a kindergartner at the bus stop is standard, unless an older sibling is also getting on or off the bus. "Kindergartners are just too little," she says. "The way the world is changing, we just don't want to take that chance. If the parent is there, you can eliminate the opportunity for harm to come to that child from an outside source." Nelson's terminal operates nearly 200 buses to service about half a dozen school districts. One of its clients, Park Kindergarten Center in Riverdale, Ill., recently warned parents that the police or protective services agencies would be contacted if they were late in meeting the child at the bus stop. Dell S. McFarlane, principal of the school, told local newspapers that a handful of parents had been repeatedly late in picking up their children, forcing drivers to return the youngsters to the school. She had stayed with these students as late as 5 p.m., about two hours after dismissal. The policy, she said, was designed to remind parents not to leave children unattended. In addition to growing concerns about the safety of students at bus stops, communities are also searching for ways to protect students who walk to school. In Escondido, Calif., where the vast majority of students don't receive bus transportation, a program called "Safe Walk Home" has been in operation for more than three years. The program uses police-trained volunteers equipped with two-way radios to patrol neighborhood streets in the vicinity of elementary and middle schools, where gang activity is common. "The program works as a strong deterrent," Tina Pope, the founder of the volunteer organization, told the Washington Post. "Anybody lurking out there knows we're here protecting the kids." 'Walking school bus'
A similar program was recently instituted at Chicago Public Schools, where some children on the South Side have been dodging bullets, not bullies, to get to and from school. About 80 parent volunteers, who undergo criminal background checks, have been recruited to escort elementary school children through gang-ridden public housing projects. "There's a lot of gunfire going on," says FitzMaurice of Vancom/TransPar. Using parent escorts as a "walking school bus," he adds, "makes all kinds of sense. It is very productive." The district also has instituted a shuttle service through gang turf for about 150 to 200 students attending two high schools. FitzMaurice says the teenagers used to walk through troubled neighborhoods but began receiving limited bus service in late January.