We in the pupil transportation industry are justifiably proud of our safety record. We have fewer crashes, fewer injuries, and fewer fatalities than any other mode of transportation, and we are quick to point out how much safer kids are in our buses than in Mom’s minivan.
For more than 30 years, the school bus industry and government agencies have worked together to protect students from external forces — to wrap them in a safe cocoon inside the school bus. But what happens when the cocoon becomes a dangerous place? When the forces putting children at risk are not impatient motorists and careless truck drivers but fellow passengers? How can we tell Mom that her children are safer in an environment where they are subject to bullying and beatings than they are in her car?
Danger from fellow passengers
It’s time to turn our focus inward. In many parts of the country, school buses have become hostile places. And it’s not just inner cities anymore; take a look at a sample of violent incidents from one week’s news reports:
Bloomington, Ill. — A 14-year-old girl beats up a 12-year-old on the bus because her father told her to.
Lakota, Ohio — A 15-year-old boy is raped by another student on the bus while others look on.
Wilmington, Del. — Seventh and eighth graders get into a fight on the bus and one student is badly beaten.
Duluth, Ga. — Sixth graders argue, and one cuts the other in the head with a knife.
Norfolk, Va. — A 17-year-old pleads guilty to murdering a fellow student who tried to trip him on the bus.
These are not cases of children being mischievous, or impetuous, or even rowdy. These are children out of control — and they are riding our buses every day.
Our traditional methods of behavior management were not designed to deal with students who view a felony as a reasonable response to irritation. In most cases, the only response a driver has at her disposal is to radio for help — if she even knows what’s happening. And then she risks retaliation from students or parents, and apathy from school officials. Not a formula to promote driver retention!
The school bus industry can’t solve this problem alone; if we are going to take on student violence, we have to do it in partnership with school principals, superintendents, boards of education and parents. Schools have begun to address bullying on campus, and the recognition is slowly dawning that school buses can be perfect breeding grounds for bullying and harassment, with no direct adult supervision and a confined space from which victims can’t escape. Many states are amending their laws on bullying to include school buses, but they do little more than require schools to have policies. Policies are only as good as the force and enforcement behind them, and too often that enforcement is lacking when it comes to the school bus.
No easy answers out there
The easy answer is to put more adults on the bus; but at a time when school districts are cutting routes and charging fees for service, that’s not a realistic solution. A few years ago, we thought that putting video cameras on buses would solve the problem, but we’ve learned that kids out of control don’t care about the cameras — or they know how to circumvent them.
What’s left? I don’t have the answer, but I know there are places where school buses are still safe, where kids don’t board with fear and where drivers don’t have to watch their backs. We need to study those operations, find out what makes them safe and successful and then work with that knowledge to reduce the risks in all operations.
It won’t be a quick fix, but we don’t have many choices left. If we don’t actively address the violence on school buses soon, we’ll be left with no drivers and few riders. Let’s put our resources into making sure school buses continue to be the safest vehicles on the road — inside and out.
John Corr is president of the National School Transportation Association.