TV newsmagazines such as "Dateline" and "20/20" have aired segments on teachers who had their careers destroyed by students who claim these teachers sexually abused or assaulted them. In some cases, these allegations are found to be true; in others, they are unsubstantiated. Even if the allegations were found to be false, the teacher's career - or life - could be ruined in the process. Unfortunately, school bus drivers and aides are also easy targets for false accusations from students and their parents. Certainly, there's no shortage of students who hold their drivers in disrespect. This grudge can develop into malice, especially if the driver files a conduct report against them. From there, students need only file a false report to gain their measure of revenge. "We've had several false reports," says Ken Schill, driver-trainer and safety specialist at Hernando County Schools in Brooksville, Fla. "I guess every county does." Schill believes that the incidence of false allegations against bus drivers has increased in the past decade. "Kids today are different," he says. "They're tougher than they were a decade ago. That's a common problem for all school districts." When an accusation is lodged, Schill says the targeted driver is removed from the route and placed on "desk duty" until the investigation is completed. "The key is that he has no contact with the students," Schill says. The investigation, which may be conducted by the Hernando County Sheriff's office and/or the Florida Department of Children and Families, typically lasts from three days to a week. The outcome generally favors the driver. "It's been many, many years since an accusation has been proven to be true against a bus driver," Schill says. Hernando County has been in the spotlight because of a rash of false reports against district employees. In a span of one month, a teacher, custodian and bus driver were investigated for child abuse allegations. Each employee was cleared of the charges after an investigation by the Hernando County Sheriff's office.
The incidents have spurred a call for tougher retribution against the offending students. Although the school district has its own disciplinary procedures for false statements (see "The Penalties for Lying," below), union leaders want students to be prosecuted under a state law that prohibits giving false information to police. "It should go right to the police department," says George Sullivan, president of the Hernando United School Workers, which represents about 200 of the district's bus drivers. Sullivan says about 90 percent of the student accusations against drivers and aides are unfounded. "What happens is that the kids get together and say, 'Let's get that bus driver,'" he says. Video surveillance systems, an increasingly common piece of equipment on school buses, would not only provide strong evidence of a false accusation but might also discourage students from lodging the complaints, Sullivan says. "They should have them on every bus. That covers the driver."
Video cameras can help
At Wichita (Kan.) Public Schools, all 400-plus school buses are outfitted with video cameras. It may be a coincidence, though, that bus drivers rarely are accused of wrongdoing by students or parents. "That is not a common problem here," says Ed Raymond, the district's transportation director. "In the past five years, we've had maybe three situations like that." Raymond credits the video cameras with providing evidence that can validate or refute allegations against drivers (or against students by drivers). In one case, a videotape helped to exonerate a driver and implicate his accusers. "When we showed the tape to the principal, that pretty much ended the accusation," Raymond says. "The principal then dealt with the students for falsifying the information and blatantly lying about the driver." "Good video cameras with good audio should be installed in all school buses," says Phyllis Broderdorp, a driver-trainer at McCracken County Board of Education in Paducah, Ky. Broderdorp, who's been a driver for 20 years, says students are likely to do whatever's necessary to get even with an unpopular driver. "If they have it in for a driver or aide, they will stop at nothing to cause trouble," she says. False allegations are dangerous, Broderdorp says, because they can taint a driver's career. Even if the charges are unfounded, the stress on the driver can be enough to cause her to find other employment. "I know all the hard work put into becoming a school bus driver," Broderdorp says. "To have some trouble-making kid wipe it all out with one lie would be devastating." While video cameras can curtail some misbehavior aboard the bus and help to determine the validity of an allegation, they are not a solution to the overriding problem: the incidence of false accusations.
Steer clear of trouble
Merle Jewett, transportation director at Merced City (Calif.) School District, doesn't believe that drivers deserve any special protection from these accusations. "I would love to have a law that says, 'The driver can do no wrong,' so I would not have to deal with the emotions of the driver or the parents of the student," he says. Jewett says the key to avoiding accusations is to "stay out of situations that can be construed in different ways." The most effective prevention, he says, is to avoid giving the students a reason to make a false accusation. "People do not seek revenge for fun, they do it for a reason," he says. Of course, caution should be the watchword when dealing with any allegations against drivers or aides. Assumptions about their guilt or innocence are dangerous, says Fred Murphy, assistant superintendent, transportation, at Polk County Schools in Bartow, Fla. "Over the past 27 years, one thing that I have learned is that you never say, 'My driver wouldn't do that,'" Murphy says. "Human nature has shown us that, given the right circumstances, most anybody will do just about anything."
The Penalties for Lying
Penalties for breach of conduct vary from school district to school district. At Hernando County Schools in Brooksville, Fla., intentionally reporting untrue or misleading information can lead to the following penalties, according to the district's Student/Parent Handbook:
REPEATED OFFENSES: Out-of-school suspension (1 to 10 days) and possible recommendation for expulsion