Preparing for the threat of hijacking

Bret E. Brooks
Posted on April 30, 2013
Bret E. Brooks is a senior instructor and consultant with the private firm Gray Ram Tactical LLC, where he teaches school bus drivers, teachers and administrators.
Bret E. Brooks is a senior instructor and consultant with the private firm Gray Ram Tactical LLC, where he teaches school bus drivers, teachers and administrators.

On Jan. 29, 2013, Charles Albert Poland Jr. became a true American hero. He gave his life so that young, innocent children might live.

The man who murdered Mr. Poland then abducted a 5-year-old boy and retreated to a bunker. After six agonizing days, Ethan was reunited with his family.

This tragedy in Midland City, Ala., is just the latest in a rash of violence targeted against schools and students. Whether it is an active murderer as at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012, or one of the hundreds of bomb threats that have been called in to schools since the start of this school year, we are seeing an increase in violence at what should be sacredly safe educational institutions.

There is one simple fact that everyone should understand: Every school in the U.S. — and school bus drivers — must be prepared for violence.

Bus hijacking history
Hijacking school buses is not a new concept. For decades, other countries have dealt with school bus hijackings and bombings. Many school buses in Israel have armed guards on board to deter terrorists.

Charles Poland was certainly not the first American school bus driver to be hijacked. One of the most notable school bus hijackings was the 1976 Chowchilla, Calif., incident in which bus driver Ed Ray, another true American hero, and 26 children were kidnapped and buried alive in a moving van. After 16 hours, Mr. Ray and some of the students were able to break through a covered opening in the ceiling and get everyone to safety.
Another notable school bus hijacking occurred in 1995 in Miami. Alicia Chapman’s bus was hijacked while full of children. She followed the hijacker’s instructions until police shot and killed the suspect.

A week before the recent hijacking in Alabama, on Jan. 23, a Kansas City, Mo., school bus driver refused to allow an unknown person on the bus and drove away. That suspect then began shooting at the bus. Luckily, no one was hurt, and a possible hijacking was prevented.

Anticipating threats
The prevention of hijackings is a cornerstone of Gray Ram Tactical LLC’s training class “School Bus Hijacking Awareness and Response.” Drivers are taught how they can prevent hijackings and what to do if they are hijacked. Drivers are also taught what they can do to assist law enforcement during the situation. This article is not intended to provide a full training course, but below is some pertinent information that drivers can utilize if they ever find themselves in a potential hijacking situation.

Potential hijackers are not always adults. School bus hijackings have been committed by students. The shooter in Kansas City was reportedly a student at a local school.

In May 2011, a North Carolina school bus driver, Evans Okoduwa, was able to disarm a seventh-grader by talking to the student.

When adults hijack school buses, there can be a variety of motives. The hijackers in 1976 wanted money, the hijacker in 1995 was angry at his previous employer, and we may never know the motive of the hijacker in Alabama. The adult could be a complete stranger or a parent of one of the students on board. Additionally, terrorism might be a motivator for hijackings.

In short, a potential hijacker could be anyone of any age, race, ethnicity, sex or background. This is why it is so important to follow policies of not allowing anyone on the bus unless they are authorized. This must include both adults and children.

Plan and practice
Every school bus driver should have an emergency plan of what to do if they are hijacked. These emergency plans must be practiced just like evacuation drills.

Understandable codes should be used by drivers to inform other drivers, dispatch or supervisors of situations. Instead of calling over the radio that they “have been hijacked” or that they “think a student has a gun,” drivers should use codes, like “Code Blue” or “Code Five.”

Additionally, drivers should have periodic check-ins with dispatch or a supervisor. If one of the check-ins is missed, that can alert others of a potential problem.

School districts should also work closely with law enforcement. Local police should have an understanding of bus routes and attempt to patrol those routes. This can deter hijackers, and it is effective at reducing stop-arm violations.

Creating and maintaining a “Bus Patrol” of students can also be effective for emergencies. In programs like these, older students are taught what to do in case of various circumstances. One possible situation might be that the Bus Patrol officer will call 911 if someone attempts to hijack the school bus.

In today’s world, most kids have cell phones. While the student is calling the police, the driver can focus on the hijacker, knowing that someone else is calling for help. Again, these scenarios should be practiced in drills.

Assess the situation
If a school bus is hijacked, the driver must make some very important decisions in a very short amount of time. There are two schools of thought: The first is for the driver to obey the hijacker’s commands and wait for assistance. The second is for the driver to resist. There are many factors that must go into the decision on which approach to take. It is the totality of the circumstances that should lead the driver to the correct decision.

Regardless of whether the driver obeys the commands or resists a hijacker, every single school bus driver must understand that their No. 1 priority is the protection of the children on board. Drivers must be prepared mentally for these situations and conduct drills to reinforce proper procedures.

I encourage every driver to seek out training and learn what they can do to protect themselves and the children on their bus. I also implore school districts to provide quality training to every member of their staff.   

Bret E. Brooks is a senior instructor and consultant with the private firm Gray Ram Tactical LLC, where he teaches school bus drivers, teachers and administrators. He has written numerous articles for SBF and other publications. Brooks was also a panel participant at the 2012 NAPT Annual Summit. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related Topics: school bus security

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