A decade or so ago, news stories about school buses mostly only reported on crashes. They received coverage not necessarily because they were severe (usually not the case), but because children were involved. There was very little reporting about other incidents because nothing else usually happened — rides to and from school were fairly routine.
But the times, they’ve a-changed, and so has the news coverage about school buses. Unlike the popular Las Vegas saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” what happens inside a school bus is broadcast all over the place.
The Washington Post, for example, ran a story about increasing sexual assaults on school buses in the Washington, D.C., area. It painted a disturbing picture and generated a lot of concern, ironically not so much because it happens but because school bus drivers seemingly don’t do enough about it. Similar stories can be found coast to coast.
Today, some school bus stories could compete with supermarket tabloids for the most sensational headlines. Rape on a school bus? Weapons on school buses? Teen moms nursing babies on school buses? Those of us who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s never heard of such things. These things never happened! Oh, there may have been an occasional argument or fisticuffs among students, but good behavior and respect for authority were the norm.
The ride on a school bus now can sometimes mirror the changed and often coarsened state of our society. Today’s school bus drivers are faced with a vastly more complex environment than their predecessors. They are expected to do far more than they are hired (and paid) to do — which is drive the bus — and they are wrongly expected to be mediators, therapists, police and even surrogate parents.
Moreover, school bus operators and school administrations face daunting legal hurdles to take action against unruly students, even when video cameras capture the incident as evidence.
After a student was raped aboard a school bus in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a local TV station opined that, “School buses often resemble a three-ring circus.” Fortunately, the incident was captured on a surveillance camera. Unfortunately, the bus driver took the political heat anyway. He was criticized for “seeing and hearing nothing,” yet he was vindicated by his employer and, more importantly, by the police.
Is it any wonder there’s a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers?
Serious violence on school buses is extremely rare (knock on wood). But when incidents occur, it’s big news. The most common are violence toward:
Too often, community discussions about pupil transportation involve only the annual budget cycle when school bus operating costs compete with other educational expenses. Parents, students, school administrators and political leaders should preemptively discuss how to ensure that daily back and forth school bus travel is as safe, secure and as incident-free as possible.
In short, what can we do to make sure that incidents we hear about in other communities don’t occur in our community? If we are experiencing problems, what can we do to solve them?
Needed is the realization that the school bus mirrors other problems in society. All-too-frequent incidents and conflicts that demand the response of multiple community resources also tend to show up at school bus stops and inside the bus. The burden of dealing with them cannot be laid at the feet of school bus drivers.
Pupil transportation is not just remarkably safe — it also provides a valuable, if underappreciated, convenience. It will be all it can be, and stay out of the headlines, only if the community values it and commits to making it work as efficiently and safely as possible.
Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT.